Polly Barton, so widely known for being a translator (the recent There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job and Spring Garden come to mind) has a clear connection to Japan as is hinted with this essay book published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Fifty Sounds is a title that treats each Japanese sound as a chapter marrying it up to real lived experiences as well as illustrative examples, highlighting nuances and quirks in Japanese culture and language that is certainly new information for me.

Polly Barton is a Japanese literary translator. Her translations include Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, and Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki. She won the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize for Fifty Sounds, and it’s wonderful to see it in the jacket.

In this debut title of her own, Barton reflects on her experience of moving to the Japanese island of Sado at the age of twenty-one and on her journey to becoming a literary translator. Written in fifty semi-discrete entries, Fifty Sounds is a personal dictionary of the Japanese language that draws together a variety of cultural reflections – from conformity and being an outsider, with astute and obtuse observations intermingling amongst the experiences. Somewhat dry in its humour, with human connection and wit, Fifty Sounds is remarkable work that takes a unique exploration of the Japanese language itself, joining up the dots to human escapades.

From min-min, the sound of air screaming, to jin-jin, the sound of being touched for the very first time, from hi’sori, the sound of harbouring masochist tendencies, to mote-mote, the sound of becoming a small-town movie star, Fifty Sounds is Barton’s own personal dictionary of the Japanese language, a memoir told through linguistic sounds. Visceral and fresh, irreverent and cognitive, Fifty Sounds is a wonderful debut about the quietly revolutionary act of learning, speaking, and living in another language.

And with (you guessed it) fifty sounds to choose from it makes a varied and riveting read, each chapter as nuanced and reflective as the previous. A brilliant debut.

Fifty Sounds is out now, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions