I received a copy of this book from the publishers free of charge for review purposes. Receiving a free copy has not influenced my opinion on this book, and all my thoughts are honest.
Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton is the kind of book that I wish I read more of. If you’re a person who likes their books categorised, then I suppose this is a memoir, but in reality it is far more expansive than that. The title, Fifty Sounds, refers to the Japanese mimetics Barton uses as jumping off points to share her experiences throughout the book. As much as this is anecdotes and tales from Barton’s life, this is also an exploration of language, and of being an outsider to a language, and of living and working in multiple languages.
As someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Japanese language, and mostly unfamiliar with Japanese customs and culture, this book was incredibly educational. I have dabbled in Japanese fiction before, but have never felt like I’ve come away from it with a more developed idea of Japan itself. This, I imagine, is more to do with the limits of fiction than anything else. What Fifty Sounds offers is an insight into the language and culture of Japan through the eyes of someone like myself, that is to say, a female Westerner with an interest in linguistics.
The introduction was perhaps my favourite part of the book, for the way it delves into the more technical aspect of Japanese, describing the area of linguistics that the book is using as a medium to explore Barton’s experiences. It’s detailed, yet accessible to someone with a relatively limited grasp of, but active interest in linguistics. The references Barton makes to figures like Wittgenstein throughout were also intriguing to me: Wittgenstein is a name I’ve heard often, having studied literature, yet he is not someone who’s work I’ve actually read. After reading Fifty Sounds, Wittgenstein is definitely a name I’ll be adding to my list to get round to one day.
For those who are perhaps less captured by the idea of explorations of linguistics, never fear. Aside from the introduction, the book does not linger too long on the more technical aspects. While each section of the book is assigned one of the eponymous ‘fifty sounds’, the text that accompanies them is a more personal story, with linguistic references interwoven. It is entirely possible to read and enjoy this book solely on the merits of the experiences Barton has to offer, in my view, though the linguistic element certainly deepened my enjoyment. The culture of Japan is also explored through Barton’s relationships with the people she meets and forms connections with, and she also explores a reasonable amount the differences between Western culture and Japanese culture, and the occasional slip-ups or misunderstandings that occurred as a result of these.
At points, I almost forgot that this book was non-fiction, such was the comprehensive nature of the memories relayed here. I will admit to a relatively boring, middle-class British life: I have never had an opportunity to immerse myself in a non-Western culture, my experiences have been exceptionally middle-of-the-road (I went to a decent state school, then attended a Russell Group University, and usually holiday somewhere in Europe). Being able to draw on my life to find an experience that so well embodies and exemplifies these elements of linguistics in the way Barton does seems to me to be something that would be found in the world of fiction. Having reminded myself that it is not, in fact, limited to the world of fiction, I do feel as though I’ve been given something of an itch to do something. Perhaps not live in Japan (my language learning skills are not my strong point), but certainly to build the confidence to explore possibilities more.
Another thing I feel compelled to confess to here is my previous lack of knowledge re: translation. My exposure to foreign languages is limited to GCSE French and even lower level German. From this sort of level of language learning, I did see translation as little more than picking from perhaps 2 or 3 words with an appropriate meaning, and reshuffling the sentence structure to fit the grammar rules for the language to which I am translating. Perhaps this is somewhat more possible for languages that developed in similar ways to English and share a lot of common ideas and conventions. I never, however, stopped to consider that many languages are bound to completely different rules to my own, and nor did I particularly ever consider that culture and society can affect the way a word is perceived. Two words in two different languages may have the same meaning in a concrete sense, but may not be considered the same in conversation at all.
Reading Fifty Sounds has really opened my eyes to not only the Japanese language and culture, but to the art of translation. I would definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest, even if passing, in linguistics, translation or Japan.
Fifty Sounds is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on April 14th.