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Tokyo Translator: An Intimate Tale of Language and Love


  • Books & the Arts
  • February 2, 2023

A Translator in Tokyo, or: A Language Love Story

Polly Barton’s memoir Fifty Sounds documents the intimacy of the act of translation and the process of learning a new language.

The history of literary translation, as the critic Lawrence Venuti once memorably put it, is one of invisibility. In the struggle between foreignizing and domesticating a text—between reminding the reader of the original’s fundamental difference versus creating the illusion that it was written in the reader’s own language—domestication has reigned, especially in the English-speaking world. The best translations in the eyes of critics and publishers are innocuous and transparent, never betraying their status as derivative of some foreign original. And translators have long been themselves invisible, mentioned in passing by reviewers for their “elegant” or “faithful” or sometimes “wooden” or “archaic” rendering, and expected to sign over ownership of their work to the author and publisher of the original. Think of the Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Norwegian, or Japanese books you’ve read. Do you know who translated your editions of The Second Sex, My Struggle, or The Tale of Genji?

Venuti was writing in 1995, and though translations remain a vanishingly small percentage of the US market (some 3 percent of books published annually), a lot has changed—for both readers and translators. Despite our persistent literary parochialism, we’re reading more in translation than ever before, thanks mainly to the renaissance of small presses and the arrival of a few blockbuster foreign novels. And we’re talking more about translators: Lydia Davis, Tim Parks, Ann Goldstein, Damion Searls, and others now verge on being literary household names. Recently, the translator Jennifer Croft, who has brought the work of Olga Tokarczuk into English, moved us one step closer to granting full literary citizenship to translators when she announced that she will no longer agree to translate books if her name doesn’t appear on the cover. “Not only is it disrespectful to me,” she explained, “but it is also a disservice to the reader, who should know who chose the words they’re going to read.” Croft’s obvious but no less important point is that the translator is, for a reader, almost as important as the author—that the translator’s invisibility is a myth, and also perhaps an injustice.

The translator Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds shows why. First published by Fitzcarraldo Editions as the winner of its 2019 Essay Prize, the book is Barton’s personal lexicon of Japanese, of which she is now one of the top English-language translators. It’s a sort of memoir told in dictionary entries, as well as a guide to the astonishing subtlety and surreality, the awkwardness and perfection, of the Japanese language. Above all, it’s an extended meditation on the fuzzy boundary between the world and the myriad words we use to represent it, and on what it means to live and love—intentionally, uncomfortably, and often rewardingly—in the space between languages. It’s a story in which, for once, the translator is the main character.

Why Japanese? Barton’s answer is as profound (and as banal) as the reason any of us end up doing the things we do. At 21, a newly minted Cambridge degree in hand, Barton went to teach English on Sado, a small island in the Japan Sea. She and her then-boyfriend had applied together for the government-funded scheme. She wasn’t particularly interested in Japan before she went, but like anyone else had certain preconceived notions. She had a noirish fantasy of the country, a desire not for “the cloying, fluorescent, high-pitched” Japan of anime and popular cinema, the one that “reached out its arms in welcome,” but rather for the “muted, austere, monochrome” Japan, “picked out in pale pink and red like an Utamoro print,” that “didn’t admit foreigners.” Put another way, “the Japan I wanted didn’t want me.”

Her boyfriend didn’t get the job; Barton eventually was chosen from the waiting list. “Japan had signaled to me in some fashion that they were in charge,” she writes. “I was to be had, but with the minimal possible enthusiasm. I was to go, knowing that I wasn’t really wanted. Which meant, I was to go.” This dynamic, with its not so subtle whiff of masochism, defines Barton’s early relationship to a country and a culture whose barriers to entry are notoriously high. But there’s something in that apparent distance, that difficulty, that Barton took as an implicit dare.

More concretely, the island presented her with the challenge of learning Japanese. Though she’d flipped through a textbook before she went, the language hit her like a tidal wave when she finally arrived. Immersion, she writes, is “what happened to me.” What she describes will be searingly familiar to anyone who has dived, as an adult, into the uncharted waters of a new language:

The language learning I want to talk about is a sensory bombardment. It is a possession, a bedevilment, a physical takeover; it is streams of sounds pouring in and striking off scattershot associations in a manner so chaotic and out of control that you are taken by the desire to block your ears—except that even when you do block your ears, your head remains an echo chamber…. It is never getting it right, hating yourself for never getting it right, staking your self-worth on getting it right next time. It is getting it right and feeling as if your entire existence has been validated. It is the kind of learning that makes you think: this is what I must have experienced in infancy except I have forgotten it, and at times it occurs to you that you have forgotten it not just because you were too young when it happened but because there is something so utterly destabilizing about the experience that we as dignified, shame-fearing humans are destined to repress it.

Learning a language through immersion means learning with the tips of your fingers and the back of your neck; with stubbed toes and goosebumps. It’s exhausting and humiliating and exhilarating, and it makes you do things you don’t want to do, become versions of yourself you don’t expect or particularly want to become, on your way to finding some order in the chaos, the voices in the noise.

In its richness, its honesty, and even its occasionally tiresome discursiveness, Fifty Sounds is both a record of that struggle and its ultimate product. The book’s title refers to one of the basic sense-making structures of the Japanese language: the gojūon, a series of “fifty sounds,” or morae, that traditionally made up the Japanese syllabary. (For reasons of linguistic history, and more concretely because of a 1946 language reform, there are actually 46 sounds, one for each of the kana that make up the language’s two phonetic scripts. There is a third, kanji, composed of characters of Chinese origin; 2,136 of these are considered “in common usage.”) Barton’s book, like a kind of syllabary, is composed of 50 essays, each based on the words that come closest to the sounds: “mimetics,” like onomatopoeia, which hover on the border between language and experience, and which for Barton is “where the beating heart of Japanese lies.”

A mimetic can be especially evocative—maza-maza, to use the Japanese adjective that captures in sound the experience of something particularly vivid. But more than that, Barton explains, mimetic speech stands for a whole view of language as “something we learn with our bodies, and through our body of experiences; where semantics are umbilically tied to somatics, where our experiences and our feelings form a memory palace.” Words are not abstract signifiers, but vital tools for living and remembering, learned and employed in the encounters that give life to her book.

The story moves more or less chronologically, though there are no dates and, as in a diary, other people are referred to not by their names but by single letters. It starts with giro’, the sound, in anime, of the skeptical or piercing gaze—in this case, from Barton’s classmates and teachers at Cambridge, from the staff at the Sado teaching program, from Wittgenstein’s piercing eyes on the cover of the Philosophical Investigations, that she read (and clearly absorbed) in her university days, from Japan itself. She falls in love, and further into Japanese, with a fellow teacher, Y, and later into lovesickness (jin-jin, “the state of feeling pain in part of your body each time your blood pulses there”). In the way that language learners become obsessed with negating their foreignness, she longs to conform and learns to cringe at her family’s Britishness (hiya-hiya, “the sound of recalling your past misdemeanors”). She struggles and doubts and barely holds things together (giri-giri, “the sound of just about getting by, or being weighed on a moment-by-moment basis,” though more literally, “the sound that something makes when tied very tight, as it grinds and chafes”). Above all, she has an overwhelming affair with the language and the people who speak it.

The affair inevitably leads, if only to prolong itself, to professional translating. And Barton finds a fragile joy in such labor, a home in the “the topsy-turvy place between languages and cultures, which has been a site of humility and triangulation and self-knowledge, of absurdity and inanity and the best sort of creative fertility,” and that “can also offer, paradoxically, a kind of safety.” Barton does find some sense of order in the chaos. But she also learns that disorder is actually closer to the truth.

Toward the end of Fifty Sounds, Barton gestures toward a politics of translation. “I increasingly feel that as translators we need to be activists in far more than simply our choices of texts and processes,” she writes, though, in one of the book’s few imprecisions, she doesn’t say how. But by bringing our attention to the calculus of translation, to the contingency and humane subjectivity of it—and even the inevitable and honest struggle with orientalizing generalizations, with the urge to exoticize a language and a culture that captivates precisely for its difference—the quiet activism of the translator comes into focus.

“There is very little which doesn’t lie within language’s scope of influence,” Barton observes. She takes part in Wittgenstein’s “battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language”—one of his definitions of philosophy—by making the world-shaping influence of language visible. Leading us through her discomfort and uncertainty, and the unsettling richness she encounters in Japan, Barton uncovers what Wittgenstein called the “rough ground” of real language, where the historicity of language reasserts itself, and we can’t avoid the fact that our language is as social, as contextual, as politically charged and difficult as identity—that language is a matter of bodies, of desires, of needs, of tension and release.

Venuti claimed that the insistence on clarity and ease in translation amounted to a kind of “ethnocentric violence,” the domination of a book or a poem in order to facilitate its consumption and sale by another culture. But things change when we grow out of the old ideologies of translation, and grow into translation itself. But, Barton shows, there is also something like a utopian promise that lies within the practice of translation—or at least a place to dwell.

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