Lost in the beautiful art of literary translation: Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton shows how a new language can provide a new perspective – Laura Waddell

I have always been awed by the art of literary translation.

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton recounts her experiences in Japan as she learns the language and becomes a literary translator (Picture: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images)

Anyone who works with a writer’s manuscript has a responsibility to serve it and its author well. From the commissioning editor who champions the book’s potential, through to the structural editor who unpicks its knots, and then to the proofreader, cover designer and publicist.

All these people and more make their mark on how the raw material is eventually received by readers. The text might be the most important thing, artistically and substantially, but quite a bit of work goes into getting a book polished up, dressed in a fetching jacket and ready for its debutante’s arrival on the bookshop floor.

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Translation, however, will always be semi-shrouded in mystery to me, somewhere between a science and an art, but with quite possibly a pinch of magic in the mix. What I do understand is that good translation isn’t simply flipping words over to their literal equivalent, but striving to capture something of the essence of the original usage: preserving the tone, the in-jokes, the cultural context. This takes deep reserves of knowledge as well as flair.

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In her recent book Fifty Sounds, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, Polly Barton recounts her experience as a learner of Japanese, teaching English as a foreign language at a small island school, and later becoming a literary translator. This is no “what I did on my summer holidays” book – although there are plenty of humorous mishaps along the way. Barton has clearly dedicated her life to working language like it is clay.

Fifty Sounds demonstrates Barton’s belief that to understand another language – to really, truly, get it – she had to immerse herself within it, building up a library of sensual associations to draw on. Every adventure she has – culinary, sexual, or emotional – adds to the depth of her vocabulary.

The book is testament to the thoughtfulness that goes into translation: the weight of choosing one phrasing over another. At times, these dilemmas verge on neurotic, spiralling off anxiously.

But for the most part Fifty Sounds is a delightful, granular account of communicating across languages, as Barton gradually becomes able to consider the world not in a new light, but with new words.

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