The Hedgehog and the Fox

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Polly Barton: Fifty Sounds (part 2)

Ep. 77

This is the second half of the conversation I had last autumn with Polly Barton, a translator from Japanese and the author of a terrific memoir cum reflection on language and translation, Fifty Sounds. In the first part we talked about Polly’s early fascination with Japan and language, and her decision aged 21 to go to live and work on a remote Japanese island and her experience of learning the language. In this part we talk about her decision to become a translator, some of the challenges that presented, and presents, and also about her book.


Fifty Sounds has fifty chapters, each of which takes a single Japanese word as its starting point or leitmotiv. All of these words are so-called ‘mimetics’, a distinctive and richly expressive class of word in Japanese that merits its own chunky dictionary, but which in the English language we generally pay little attention to. They’re words that give colour and individuality to storytelling; the kind of words that convey the speaker’s sense of being an embodied person in the world, alert to its texture and feel. In choosing to build her book around these words, Polly seems to get to the heart of Japanese, or if that is too grand a claim, to capture the essence of what it meant to her to learn Japanese and to begin to glimpse the world through the lens of Japanese.

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