For the last TOAST Book Club, I wrote about Tilted Axis Press, discussing the joys of translated fiction. Following on from that, I thought it would be lovely to sit down (virtually) with Polly Barton, who translates Japanese fiction into English, and learn more about the translation process. As well as translating work by other people, Polly’s own book Fifty Sounds was published this spring. It’s a series of essays, part memoir, about traversing the geography of language. It was one of my most anticipated titles of the year, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s one of those books that fizzes with energy. I spoke with Polly about what it’s like to help carve a book into existence for audiences all around the world.

Jen: Polly, you say that translating is about being present at the birth of a text — in effect, a translator is a midwife of books. Can you tell us about a few of those births? And do you find it more difficult working with a shorter text, as there isn't as much time to get to grips with the author's DNA?

Polly: For me personally, the magic of the birth starts to happen when I start to feel the voice come together in English––obviously there has to be a ‘falling in love’ with the original text as well, but I guess that falls more on the conception side of things––and I think that probably is an easier thing to achieve when working with a longer text. Although not necessarily, actually: sometimes in short works with a very clear or strong voice, it's obvious what has to happen. Something that I've noticed recently is how nice it is to translate multiple works by the same authors. I enjoy working on a diverse range of texts and I wouldn't want to work only on one or two authors. I've had the experience lately of returning to the work of an author I've translated previously, and there's this great sense of recognition that feels so embodied, like a muscle memory. For example, the first full-length novel I translated a few years ago was a novel called Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki, and recently when I returned to translate a short text by Shibasaki, I had this flood of something like the physical memory of working with her prose, her rhythms of speech. Even though the texts were pretty different in terms of content, and even voice. 

Jen: I love how you speak about language being something that we learn with our body, and through our bodily experiences. Can you give a few examples of Japanese phrases and words you have learned through bodies of text, i.e. through your own translations — words that always take you back to a particular book?

Polly: I remember, in what was more or less my first translation task, I was asked by the company where I was working to translate a food blog, and there was an immensely detailed description of the 'exquisite' sensation of a quail's egg yolk bursting on the tongue and oozing out across the tongue. Tororithat was the onomatopoeic descriptor for how the yolk oozed, and I still associate that word with this image of a yolk popping in the mouth and seeping across the tongue. And, actually, just to keep with that delightful egg theme, another one that springs to mind is the word bisshiri (another instance of Japanese onomatopoeia – it’s everywhere!). That was in the first chapter of a book called And So We Look to the Sky by Misumi Kubo, although my translation was published as a stand-alone chapbook called Mikumari. There's a section where the main character, a young teenage boy, reads for the first time about reproduction, and promptly becomes very grossed out by female anatomy. He stops being able to eat salmon-roe sushi which has until that point been his favourite, and whenever he's sitting next to a girl in class, he says he imagines her stomach crammed full with little eggs: bisshiri. It was amazing to me to Google-image search that word, bisshiri, and see such a specific phenomenon reoccurring across a panoply of different substances. It's far more specific than anything we have in English. And now I can't hear it without thinking of lots of eggs.

Jen: I love that! In Fifty Sounds you are very open about uncertainty and nuance, not just in the translation of words but also with the recollection of memories, and the process of articulating feelings. It felt refreshing to read a memoir where someone confidently said they may be wrong — especially when you recalled conversations and inserted what you wished you had said. Did you find that revisiting your initial move to Japan (and your experiences of learning Japanese) was almost a task of translating your younger self?

Polly: That's a really nice way of putting it––yes, I definitely did. One of the challenges actually was maintaining a correct distance with that younger self, or with different elements of that younger self, some of which remain unchanged, and others of which feel like they belong to someone else. But particularly when it comes to my perceptions about Japan, I went out there knowing absolutely nothing, so I had pretty much the standard set of cliched beliefs. I think something I wanted to make sure I did in the book was get the balance right––not to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude of pretending that I went out there perfectly knowledgeable about and accepting of cultural differences, while also making clear the ways my perceptions did change, and how I did grow in my understanding, but not being too preachy about that either... I think I mostly solved that by jumping around all over the shop in terms of perspective, sometimes cleaving very close to young me and sometimes looking back at her and shaking my head. 

Jen: You also say: “There are often clouds inside me, and I am vaguely, peripherally aware that they are made up of some kind of vaporised emotion.” Without meaning to sound reductive, do you find that it is easier/more satisfying to express certain types of emotion in either Japanese or English? Which would you feel yourself gravitating towards in a given example, and why?

Polly: For sure, yes. I feel like there are certain emotions which just aren't routinely expressed in Japanese or in English, or just have a different set of cultural associations and baggage attached. A very common emotional reaction in Japanese is kuyashii, which is something like the bitterness of losing out on something: the kind of feeling where you want to say, “it's so unfair!”, even if you know objectively that it's perfectly fair. Also, the sensation of something being nostalgic––natsukashii––is expressed very often, with no particular constraints on timeframe: something from two weeks previously can still be natsukashii, in extreme cases. I often find myself wanting to express those feelings in English, and struggling. But of course, until learning Japanese and being in that context, I never felt them to be lacking. I was listening to a podcast about this the other day, about how we learn emotions within a specific environment – a familial one, firstly, but then, more widely, a particular sociocultural context – whose specificity we might not realise. So although we might translate words like 'sadness' or 'anxiety' unproblematically across different languages, it's still the case that what constitutes being ‘sad’, what 'sad' behaviour is, might be very different from one country to the next.

Jen: Much of your book is about articulating those gaps within/between language. Admiring the awkwardness of that and learning how to traverse that landscape with all its flaws and uncertainty. Has the process of writing Fifty Sounds made you feel more at peace with those things?

Polly: I think it has, in a way. I still find it very easy to slip back (when I'm speaking Japanese) to that sense of being clumsy and uncouth, which is such a visceral thing, but I think I'm getting better, as well as reminding myself, when I come out of that, that actually it's alright to be a bit of an inarticulate mess. When I started writing the first drafts of what would become some of the essays in Fifty Sounds, I'd only just got back to the UK after living in Japan for almost five years, and I really felt that I was struggling to cope with the conversational and social rules here too, especially in Bristol where everyone seemed to me so friendly and talkative. I frequently couldn't understand people, or couldn't get the words out that I wanted to say, and I felt like I didn't have even one language or social context in which I could function properly. I think the original impetus behind the book definitely came out of wanting to record that feeling, but also out of some need for a home on the page where I could articulate my inarticulacy and uncertainty. So, in that sense, it definitely brought peace.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Interview by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium.

Photographs by Camilla Greenwell. 

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5 comments

Was reading with such pleasure. And what a beautiful word ‘Torori’.

Neringa 3 months ago

Do you know the name of the yellow flowered plant/tree and where it comes from that heads your interesting writing. I have been looking for years and havnt seen another one anywhere till now! as I have one in my garden. Have approached approached RHS without success too…..thank you…

Vivienne 3 months ago

There seems to be a strong affinity between Japanese and British cultures. There is an exchange of appreciation of literature, music and gardening. It could be the shared experience of being island groups at a similar latitude. When British people were asked about the effect of lockdown on their lives they invariably spoke about a greater awareness of nature and valuing the simplicity of life around them- a rather Japanese approach.

Judith 3 months ago

Sounds absolutely fascinating…words for emotions by their very nature are subjective….much looking forward to reading this. Thank you Toast!

Caroline 3 months ago

This was so interesting to read, and just reminded me how much I need to pick this book up.

Charlotte 3 months ago