Falling Straight Into Sound: An Interview with Polly Barton

CJLC Editors Campbell Campbell and Ashley Cullina interview Polly Barton on her most recent work, Fifty Sounds, a memoir and personal dictionary which anatomizes the author’s relationship with Japan and her journey to becoming a literary translator through a series of reflections on Japanese mimetic words. “The language learning I want to talk about,” Barton writes, “ is sensory bombardment. It is a possession, a bedevilment, a physical takeover.” 

Barton’s translations have featured in Granta, Catapult, The White Review and Words Without Borders and her full length translations include Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (Pushkin Press), Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda (Tilted Axis Press/Soft Skull), which was shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Prize, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura (Bloomsbury), and So We Look to the Sky by Misumi Kubo (Arcade). 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Campbell Campbell: To begin our questions, I was hoping you could talk about how you envisioned the beginning of this book. What drew you to the images and sounds of the 50 sounds? And why were you drawn to creating a text with an affective impulse, an impulse on how the reader is affectively experiencing language?

Polly Barton: I mean, I think I should say on a practical level that this book won the essay prize for Fitzcarraldo – that’s how it came to be. The way that the essay prize works is that you submit a sample and a proposal for a full length book. And it was during the writing of that proposal that the whole structure of Fifty Sounds really came about; until that point I’d been back from Japan for maybe six or seven months, I’d been writing quite a lot of notes about language and my time there and I was noticing a kind of real prevalence of onomatopoeic words. But I think it was only when I sat down and started thinking, ‘okay, right, if I am going to write a Fitzcarraldo Editions book, what would it be?’ that things came together and the whole thing took form. And when the idea of an onomatopoeic dictionary form first occurred to me, I thought it was way too conceptual and way too strange to ever work. I’m really fascinated by books which have strong constraints or concepts, but I think often, my experience of them is that they become too cerebral, you know. I really, like you say, I really wanted this to be quite immersive and have an effect on the reader. And so I wanted to try and find a way to combine those two things: high concept, but also high feeling. 

CC: May I ask, what was the process of writing text? Did you begin with the individual stories that accompany each of the fifty sounds in mind and then create a narrative behind it? Or did you have the narrative already? 

PB: Well, it’s so interesting, because the genesis of each of the individual stories or sounds was quite different. I mean, you know, I have the narrative because the narrative is my life, right? But broadly speaking, I knew that I wanted some narrative structure, which was the path between speaking zero Japanese to becoming a translator. And I also felt that I wanted to have this element of falling-in-love in there, because that felt so bound up with everything to me. I wasn’t clear about which bits to include, and it was really only through trial and error that I found the narrative arc that sort of works, which is roughly chronological but not entirely. Actually, the bit that I struggled to fit in the most was the chapters on Wittgenstein. I knew that I wanted to have that in there, I knew that needed to be in there. But I also didn’t know how to introduce that  without it seeming like a departure from the narrative of my story. There was a lot of back and forth.

Ashley Cullina:  So, quite obviously, your book is called Fifty Sounds, and it’s about Japanese mimetic words, as you’ve discussed. When I was reading, the text raised a lot of thoughts for me about noise and language, and how we think about sound versus language, or oral versus written forms of communication, and then even perhaps, say, the word ‘noise’ and the problematics of that, when we think about it in terms of another language. I was wondering whether the aspects of sound and speech, beyond the written word, were on your mind when you were writing? Or how does that present itself?

PB: Yeah, yeah, that’s really interesting. To a certain extent, when we say things like sound or noise, it already implies that we are not understanding the meaning of the expression, right? If you understand something, then it’s language. And if you don’t understand it, then it’s sounds and noise. So it’s kind of fascinating to me that in the Japanese alphabet there are sounds, but then the sounds kind of come together to give meaning. Obviously, this book doesn’t purport to help people speak Japanese. And I don’t think anyone believes that it does that. But I am trying to sort of give a feeling of immersion. My preference would be that if people read the Japanese words, then they would know how to pronounce them, you know, and so something I often do when I do a reading is I just read the 50 chapter titles, which are each mimetic words, all together. And people would say to me, “oh, wow, like, that’s so different. A lot of them are so different than how I imagined them sounding, it’s so nice to hear the right sounds.” And I have to say, “it’s still not quite right when I say them.” In writing them, I’m still aware that there is, maybe, an unbridgeable gap, I suppose, unless you have the audiobook version. There was a time when I thought about putting a pronunciation guide and stuff in the book, but then I thought ultimately that’s really not going to change anything. I was thinking about that stuff a lot. 

I also feel that if I’d learned Japanese in university, or you know, from a textbook first, I don’t know why, but my sense is that I wouldn’t have put that sense of sound into my writing. The way I learned Japanese was like falling straight into a field of sound. And then, kind of learning about the grammar on top of that, which was, for me, really amazing, and what motivated the approach behind Fifty Sounds, of wanting to privilege language over its written form. A final thing I’ll say is that it’s a funny thing –  I don’t want to talk about the written form, because so much of my obsession with the language actually has been with the written form of it and I love the pictorial aspects of the Japanese language. They have been an endless source of fascination for me and still are. So it feels odd to me to be writing in a way that privileges the other bit. But for this book, that was the moment. Yeah, maybe there will be a time when I will write about the visual aspect.

CC: This topic feels connected to Wittgenstein’s idea of the oral foreign language. And I was wondering how or if you view your project coinciding with Wittgenstein’s goal to understand the everyday use of language? Or how you two may be in conversation?

PB: I mean, I feel very nervous about ever saying that what I’m doing is in line with what Wittgenstein would do, because I can feel him shaking his fist in his grave as I say that. But  when I went to Japan, I was fresh from a Philosophy degree, and I was fresh from immersing myself in Wittgenstein, and then it felt very much like what I was experiencing was sort of everything that he’d been talking about. I had this thought so often when I was there, that if people just didn’t bother doing a philosophy degree, they just went to Japan, they could almost learn everything that they needed to know about Wittgenstein. Yeah, I feel very wary about saying this book is in line with his ideas because I think people interpret Wittgenstein very differently, but certainly Fifty Sounds contains a heavy dose of his ideas, it’s heavily informed by his thinking.

I feel like there’s a lot of creative nonfiction that engages with various things, be it political, philosophical, the anthropological, some of it does it incredibly well, some of it does it less convincingly. Someone that I think of as engaging with theory very well, for example, is Maggie Nelson. But she pulls from all over the shop, whereas, for me, this felt like something very different. And maybe people who aren’t into Wittgenstein or whatever feel like I’m a bit of a broken record, but rather than taking ideas from different people I wanted to explore what it would be to really stick with one intertext. I mean, obviously, I reference a couple of other people as well, like Anne Carson, but in terms of philosophers Wittgenstein is the one who pops up throughout.

CC: I loved the Wittgenstein chapters, those were my favorite part of the book. And I loved the moment where you came to the realization that language does not structure our reality, the part where you discussed how learning a new language forced you to defamiliarize your past notions of language and past understanding of the meaning of words. How did you come to realize that?

PB: I find this hard to talk about because philosophical quarrels sort of litter the path, so I’m really wary of saying something that’s going to be terrible. Something that I have found very fascinating is learning to switch between two languages, learning to live between two languages, to think in two. I really, I really enjoy being able to do that. I think what I’ve enjoyed in part is realizing that there’s not an entirely clear cut off from whether you’re thinking in Japanese or thinking in English. Something that people often ask is, ‘well, which language do you dream in?’ This kind of assumption that all dreams are just like a kind of linguistic code or something. I do have dreams, which are very heavily English, or like, I’ll wake up with an English sentence in my head, I’ll wake up with a Japanese sentence in my head, German sentence, but my sense is that the majority of it isn’t that easily demarcated. One of the big Wittgensteinian thoughts is that we tend to assume that all thought is linguistic. Whereas, you know, if I say to you, ‘what were you thinking when you turned your ceiling fan on?’ It’s not like when you turned it on, you had this specific thought, and now you could post-rationalize and realize what those thoughts were? We don’t have this kind of constant train of English words running through our heads as English speakers. And yet I still do find myself writing Japanese emails and trying to express very English thoughts in a very Japanese way. So you know, those linguistic structures do to a certain extent shape our reality, show and shape our impulse to try and say things.

AC: That’s lovely, thank you. I agree with Campbell, I loved all of your sections on Wittgenstein. I particularly liked your discussion of how piercing his gaze appears in photographs, and the relationship you offer between that image and your initial impulse to move to Japan. I wanted to hear more from you, perhaps about that characterization, or that personification of Japan. You have a lovely little phrase you offer, which is ‘the feeling you get at every party where you have to introduce yourself, the sound of eyes riveting deep into holes in your self belief’. I think that’s a very easily accessible or relatable sensation; it’s also one that comes up throughout the book in terms of your relationship with Japan. Could you speak more about that?

PB: Yeah, thank you. I think that that chapter in my mind is connected up with ideas about masochism. One sound that was in the book until very close to publication and was kind of the last one to go and be replaced by a shorter chapter was about having a conversation with someone who had been to Latin America for a few years and said how he felt about coming back – that kind of cliched conversation about how you have different souls in different languages, and he had felt free in Latin America. And I had said, “Oh, I feel like I became more uptight, throughout being in Japan.” And then felt quite embarrassed, because I uttered very casually something that felt very true to me, actually, without realizing I was gonna say that. In the book I try to capture this feeling of being drawn to the austerity of the language and culture, I suppose: the not being smiled at, not being told to chill out, but being encouraged to be more and more attentive to minutiae and feel more deferential and present yourself in quite a different way. And that in my mind links up with the impulse to study philosophy and also this strange fanaticism that a lot of people seem to feel towards Japanese culture. I mean, obviously, there are other elements that are thrown in the mix, and a part of that is aesthetic and Oriental, and problematic in that sense. But I think there is this sort of masochistic urge to be outside in some way when immersing yourself in another culture. 

AC: Thank you for that. That’s wonderful. Hearing you describe that was great, because I’ve never had or seen that put into words before – that sense of maybe knowing in someone else’s eyes, or in another culture’s eyes, as it were, that you’re just not quite measuring up, but still feeling a pleasure in trying to get there. I really appreciate that.

PB: Pleasure and intense displeasure, right, and the constant cycling of those. There’s something about it that’s a bit like gambling on a neuroscientific level, you know, like if I could just win this next time.

CC: You discuss the bond that you created with your lover, in the book, by learning two languages together. There’s this Jonathan Swift line, “we have a little language together.” And that felt present in those moments. What kind of intimacy do you think can be built by learning a language together?

PB: I’m a total sucker for whatever kind of intimacy that is. There’s something about that which  is so exciting to me. I think now I’ve seen that done with Japanese and English too many times, it doesn’t really excite me anymore, but at the time when it was so new, this kind of creation of a hybrid language. I think part of it is the way that Japanese grammar is quite flexible, and it enables you to just combine these linguistic building blocks in quite a kind of immediate way. So it just felt incredibly creative. And that was really exciting to me. I’ve also had it, not necessarily in a romantic context, but just with people and friends, even in the small ways of when neither of you is speaking the other’s language to its full capacity and so you find this middle ground together. That form of care in the way of like, “how much are you understanding? Let me make this comprehensible to you.” When you’re both doing that I think that’s a really visible and tangible form of all intimacy. All care and love is about trying really to understand what the other person understands and to reach them in some way.

AC: Making language work for you I suppose, rather than being constrained by it.

PB: Yeah, yeah exactly. 

CC: How is this intimacy similar to the intimacy you create with the reader? Who do you imagine as the reader, do you imagine someone who has some familiarity with Japanese, or someone who has no familiarity at all? 

PB:  I think when I’m writing I’m not sort of making assumptions about what my reader knows. And then later at the editing stage there’ll be a bit more self editing, or maybe my editor would say, “can you add in a bit of explanation here? Or, what does this mean?”

It’s a real balancing act. I find it really frustrating if I’m reading a book that just kind of drops in lots of words that I don’t know. Almost the more I’m enjoying it, the more frustrating I find it because it’s like, “well, I’d love to be able to be welcomed into the world of what this word means, but it feels inaccessible.” I knew that I didn’t want to do that. But then over-explanation also removes you from the immediacy of the moment. Right? So yeah, it is a tightrope. I find this question of who I’m writing for quite difficult. I don’t think I have a very fixed conception of who my reader is, at least not in the early stages of writing. 

AC: Intimacy is a big topic for Campbell and I because it was the theme of our most recent issue of the magazine, so we were working with the implications of that word and its themes alot. But one other sort of segue or a question I might ask is about the intimacy of the relationship of the translator to the text, or the text to the translated text. I know that Campbell has a bunch of questions for you about Where The Wild Ladies Are, which I have not had a chance to read yet. But I recently read This Little Art by Kate Briggs, which was also put out by Fitzcarraldo. I loved it, that was a big entrance into the world of translation for me, that book raised so many new possibilities. I was taken in by this idea of the translator writing a text herself, that the translated text that’s produced is, in some sense, the translator’s own. Briggs talks about how we know if something is a translation. If we don’t call it a translation, if you publish a translated text without that qualifier, would we even view it as a translation, and how does that affect our understanding of the text and its authorship? How do you see yourself in this little triangle between text, translated text, and translator? Can you speak to that?

PB: For a long time the big word when you were talking about translation was ‘faithful,’ as in how a translation must be to its text. There’s all these horrible gendered comments about how translation should be like a woman, beautiful and faithful. There’s someone called Sophie Collins, who writes about translation theory. And she has suggested intimacy as a replacement for this idea of fidelity, that as translators what we should be aiming for is this feeling of intimacy with the text. I am really obsessed with this idea. I mean, the obvious shortcoming of that idea is that you can feel very intimate with the text, and then be a very bad translator of it, or not really get it at all. You can even feel intimacy without necessarily having it. But I think if you view it not just as a sensory state, but as with a friend or a relationship, that you achieve intimacy with the text as a praxis, in a way. It’s something that I think about a lot, and a principle that I think I’m guided by. The space where I produce my best translations is one where I feel comfortable. It’s not a sense of us becoming one necessarily, but it’s really knowing the text and knowing where I stand in relation to it and feeling a bit of being able to give my voice to it, because I know where we’re positioned relatively. Unrelated to that, I think I would add that I love This Little Art as well. And that was actually the first Fitzcarraldo book I ever read. That and probably Maggie Nelson together, are the two texts/authors that allowed me to dream that Fifty Sounds could exist and that and that people might want to read it. One of my best friends actually gave me This Little Art, but she’s not a translator. She has a tendency to be quite funny, and she said when she gave it to me, ‘I never had any idea that what you did was so interesting.’ Like, come on! I’ve been talking to you about it for years and years. Briggs goes into a lot of detail, right, but the detail is what makes it fascinating, and the passion comes across. You sense her intimacy with translation as a kind of obsession. I think that was quite empowering to me in making me think that detail doesn’t have to be alienating. If it’s done well, detail can be a way of drawing people in.

CC: That’s awesome. I have a few more questions about your philosophy of translation, I’ll keep it more focused on Where the Wild Ladies Are, which has been a huge success recently. I was struck by the fact that the book exists because of its ‘border-crossing impulse,” its promiscuity with other cultures, to borrow a term from Garth Greenwell. How do you view this virtue in art? And do you think that this quality is lacking or ample in contemporary literature?

PB: The quality of border crossing? In what sense? 

CC: Because of like, the mix of traditions, languages, allusions that are both Eastern and Western.

PB: Are you saying that because it read as Western to you?

CC: Well, I read it as a mix of Eastern and Western.

PB: Right, right. I once said more or less the same thing to Aoko [Matsuda, the author of Where the Wild Ladies Are]. I remember interviewing her once for a podcast where I said, “compared to, more or less, any other Japanese writers, your work is so full of Western references.” And she basically did exactly what I just said to you now: “So what do you mean? Can you give me an example?” She wasn’t doing it aggressively, she was genuinely curious, but I went totally blank. And I was like, “no, but, you know, you know what I mean?” And she genuinely didn’t. I think that in itself is very telling about modern Japan. Thanks to very many different factors, starting with the post war occupation – not starting with historically but starting with in terms of like major-ness of bringing the Western influence into trend. Things that the US would read as very Western, like, I don’t know, Starbucks or whatever, are just part of modern Japan. It can be hard to separate out all of that stuff, I hear what you mean. I’m intrigued also about where that intersects with the porousness or the border-crossing that is these very traditional tales, that are the subject of Where the Wild Ladies Are. Some of them are folk tales, or most have their roots or in folk tales, but they have become immortalized in either Rakugo or Kabuki, which are quite… it feels weird to call them establishment but in a way they are, there’s this whole culture around them. It’s not that Aoko has no respect for those forms of storytelling, or the stories but she just does whatever the hell she wants. In some of her versions the original story stays relatively intact. In other bits she just selects a single character or a single theme from the original. In the jealousy story for example, there’s one very jealous woman in the original tale, but she’s a minor character. Aoko says, “Well, I’m really intrigued by her. And I kind of actually think that there’s something quite beautiful in being that jealous. So let’s talk about this.” That freedom is really, really powerful and really energizes the collection. 

CC: I completely agree. Thinking about Where the Wild Ladies Are, and There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, I’m wondering if you notice patterns in which narratives we are choosing to translate and transport to Western audiences? And how do you think we should perhaps expand these narratives?

PB: Yes, I do notice patterns. Not because of the texts I have translated, but more because of the other things that I’ve tried to get people interested in which they don’t take to. And sometimes it makes sense to me, other times it really doesn’t. I don’t think I have a complete grasp of the algorithm of taste at all, and I think it’s perpetually changing. Something that has changed a lot in the last few years is that suddenly Japanese women’s fiction is very hot. And that was not always the case. When I started out like, everyone wanted the next Murakami, that was the pattern people wanted to replicate. I don’t think it was such a huge thing in the States but in the UK Convenience Store Woman [by Sayaka Murata] broke that world. And now everyone wants the next Convenience Store Woman and there’s Breast and Eggs [by Mieko Kawakami].

This is something that I think about a lot and something I struggle with slightly. When I’m talking about a book with a publisher now, one of the first things that they will say is, “is it feminist?” I had that with There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, and I didn’t and don’t know what to say to that, because in Japan it’s already feminist. It’s a woman talking about her work, life, an unmarried woman who has no discernible interest in getting married, having a family, talking about her work – that represents a feminist act in a way. But when I say that to Western publishers, that’s not what they want. It needs to be Western feminism and and that’s hard. Feminism just takes a different shape in Japan. People talk about Convenience Store Woman being feminist and I’m not sure that in Japan ever anyone would really consider that, the whole conceptual understandings are quite different. 

CC: Going off of this, how do you compensate for the lack of cultural knowledge that the American reader brings to the text? How does that play into your translation?

PB: Over time, I’ve accumulated a kind of tool bag of different ways of dealing with that. I think a lot of people assume that it’s footnotes, right? Which is funny, because in contemporary fiction, we very, very, very rarely see footnotes. I’ve occasionally mooted the possibility of footnotes and my publishers were like ‘No, no way.’ So, different ways of dealing with translating cultural contexts. That was an interesting question, actually, with reference to Where the Wild Ladies Are. We ended up adding in explanations at the back of the stories which weren’t there in the original. It’s funny with them, because of the stories in the book, some of those stories are known to more or less every single Japanese person, others, are very, very scarcely known. And so initially, in the British edition of the book, the introductions appear in front of the individual stories, and it’s only the one contextual introduction for them all. Then when we did the American one, the American editor said, “I would rather have them at the back. And if we’re going to do them in the back, it feels like we should be one for each” and so we did. That’s quite different. I like both options. When this happened we consulted with Aoko, and she was quite happy for them to go in and actually introduce the context behind each story. Afterwards she said, “You know, it’s funny, with a lot of these stories, I assumed that most Japanese readers would know them. And actually, I’ve had a lot of comments that people didn’t know. So I kind of wish that we had done this in the introduction to the Japanese edition.” 

CC: Also, for Where the Wild Ladies Are, there are moments where I read it in a British accent because of its diction and its grammar. And I’m wondering how dialect plays into your translation practice – do you translate with a specific Anglophone dialect in mind? 

PB:  There’s sort of an unspoken rule that as a non-American translator, you should translate into something Mid-Atlantic. Which I kind of don’t do or support, especially when I’m doing something with Aoko because, in Japanese, her texts are so conversational and so idiomatic. There’s so much dialogue, and feeling and it’s so humorous, which I can’t replicate in an American dialect because I’m not American. I can try, but it ends up lacking. To do the best translation I have to use my idiom, and my idiom is very, very British. This is a comment that I get a lot of in reviews: “Oh my God, Barton’s translation is so British.” And that’s for the British edition. And then for the American edition, things were definitely changed. My editor at Soft Skull used to work a lot in London. And maybe it’s related but, in any case, she said, “I don’t want to lose a lot of the British-isms, let’s keep them in.” Then the proofreader came in, and we lost a few more. But generally speaking, she let me keep things like “bloody” – “bloody love the mountains”. I’m sure that there is a better translation for that in the States, but I am not the person who could do that, you know? 

AC: I love that you were able to keep those British-isms. I think that relates well to what we were speaking about earlier, in the sense that this is your translation, that perhaps it’s not the translator’s role to deliver the world a text, or deliver a certain world of text. This is what you’ve created, and it’s allowed to be in your language. We wanted to close by asking for any book recommendations you might have – anything you’re reading at the moment or watching, anything that you’re releasing soon that you’d like people to know about?

PB: I recently read a book called Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. And people have said lots of good things about Jenny Erpenbeck for a while, and I finally just got around to reading her. It’s one of the best books that I’ve read in a really, really long time; it deals with the migrant crisis, but also translation and it’s just beautiful, beautiful and sad. That’s one thing. And a book that actually I reference quite a lot in Fifty Sounds, that I’ve translated, is finally coming out in the States. It’s called So We Look to the Sky and it’s being published by Arcade. That translation has been a really long time in the making, because of difficulties getting it published, but I’ve really loved it and really wanted it to be out there ever since I found it. I’d love it if people read that.

Fifty Sounds is now available in the U.S. through Liveright Books.
More information about Polly Barton and her work can be found at www.pollybarton.net.

Portrait by Michael Troy Judd.