I have met Polly Barton three times. Best friend of frequent collaborator Michael Judd/ Belgium Solanas, a film maker and photographer who wrote the infamous peacock piece on here as well as making my Martin video, I first met her at an all night party : Tokyo Witch Garden in Tokyo, where we tried to talk over the heavy metal band that was playing and exchanged mutually intriguing accounts about living here in Japan. An acclaimed Japanese-English translator with an almost fearfully intelligent gaze, she is the kind of person who tells it like it is – but beautifully. At that particular moment, I think she was about to leave Japan, a country she loves and is thoroughly addicted to, but also finds problematic (sound familiar?): sick to the teeth of being ‘othered’. Now (not entirely comfortably, it would seem ) based back in the UK, she has just published her first book, 50 Sounds, to rave reviews, already on its second printing and which also featured in this weekend’s Japan Times. We have just ordered it. I know it will be an intensely interesting read, and I am looking forward to see how our experiences of living here interlock, but also differ.

The second time I met Polly was at a screening of Michael and Polly’s hilariously surrealistic and comedic film ‘Crispy Kiss’ in Osaka, where they were running around giving out film-themed cocktails that were not easy on the stomach; even if the movie itself was very easy on the brain and eye. Later, there was a goodbye party and mass karaoke with people I didn’t know which was daunting for me; I don’t think I saw her again for a couple of years until she was back in Japan, dancing at a club night called Egomaniac where we were all going wild to Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill as though part of a religious cult. A very highly skilled, precise but instinctively penetrating writer, I am fascinated by her story of moving to the Sado island, alone, ‘fresh out of Cambridge’; of having an affair with an older married man there; becoming gradually more fluent and inextricable, the similarities of our ‘in-betweenness’, both ‘Japanized British’, the most glaring and important difference being that 50 Sounds is the story of her immersion in the Japanese language itself (I, in great contrast, shamefully, can’t even write my own name in the most simple of syllabaries, katakana) ; and how this experience shaped and changed not only her life but even reorganized her own consciousness.

To enter Japanese is to enter a mindset – perhaps why D and I have resisted – a gendered, hierarchical, highly complex series of social elaborations and written and unwritten rules that makes speaking English feel comparatively like eating a bag of chips. We have never managed it. I am certainly ‘conversant’, enough to oil the hinges, to communicate, but have never properly endeavoured; neverly truly sunk my teeth into it. In truth, I was never especially studious. At school I was academic, but lazy. My record, movie and perfume collections have always been more important. I still accrue vocabulary, at a glacial pace, but essentially gave up long ago. (Not entirely true……I have to speak it every day; we have had language lessons intermittently over the years, but in our hearts knew that it was never really going to happen. I just find it impossible to produce fluently from my lips. It doesn’t emerge. There is no well I can draw from. The language just does not ‘fit’ my brain; it won’t enter). I find it beautiful; it is beautiful: to look at as well, so I can’t deny my deep jealousy of Polly, a brilliant individual, in having not only mastered Japanese, to have gone down the full ‘rabbit hole’ the way she has in entering the psyche and the internal linguistic mechanisms ; how they express themselves at the soul level ; but also to be able to render Japanese literary works in effortlessly lucid prose in English – a true bridge between the two — even if she has been ( fortunately or unfortunately ), irrevocably altered in the process.


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20 responses to “POLLY BARTON

  1. Z


    What a wonderful new person to be introduced to! The book is immediately on my list. As a very my-pace, interest-based learner and someone who has studied the language on and off(mostly off) for ten years, but only visited briefly… I daydream about being able to summon some Japanese fluidly, casually, out and about. I may fall asleep during Zoom classes but faced with a situation in person where I HAD to respond, I think I could get a lot across. The key turning in my mind and unlocking the tongue; uniting all the little key elements and cultural things i’ve picked up.

    • Good for you. I genuinely respect your efforts, and wish, like the Covid Vaccine I am about to deliriously receive, I could just be given a syringe with total Japanese proficiency.

      Polly did it the hard way: the only way – immersing and actually engaging and learning to speak and write and all the rest with absolute determination. I literally gave up the first week I was here (on my first day at work), because honestly, I KNOW I could never read kanji, any more than I could do a chemistry equation or concentrate for more than five minutes on a history book. I just can’t. So it was prescient of me in a way; instinctively I knew this was not going to happen – I don’t have that brain. I went a different path. But what is interesting is that despite the fact I can’t access what Polly can, we still, at the intuition brain stem level, have sussed out many of the same things.

      Re; othering, by the way – I do realize that it works both ways. It is definitely extremely real here – I remember when we talked she had truly had her fill for the time being; there gets a point where you literally can’t get any further, no matter your proficiency in the lingo ……… yet anyone, including me of course, who puts up barriers in any way will naturally alsohave them erected in his face.

    • PS. It will be great fun to compare our reactions to this book. I have already read one chapter, about a suicide in a forest, and it was dazzling.

      I think I was in too much of a brain fuzz because of all the recent covidrama; but with that hopefully receding, I can’t WAIT to just dive into this properly. Sometimes it is better to wait until the right moment. x

      • Z

        I preordered the American release, as I can’t yet justify paying double for shipping…. But I was certainly tempted.

        Daydreaming about having a future bilingual convo with you and one Mme. Satori…

        I was double vaxxed in April. Cannot wait for you to experience the same sweet relief!! The needles are so small, didn’t feel like anything but a lungful of air and freedom.


        It will be lovely to meet you.
        You can do the translating!

  2. Interesting.
    Having dealt with international tourists for 10 yrs in Nepal, I now dabble in several languages. I am still not fluent in anything but English. I hear Kashmiri, Nepali and Hindi daily but still only manage a few sentences. I can’t make some of the sounds properly either.
    Language embodies culture & mindset so much. I will put this on my reading list!

    • Exactly. And yet your analyzes of things are amazing- despite not being fluent etc: the big question is: do you have to be in order to still have an opinion? The whole topic fascinates me endlessly. Culture. Language. Identity. How can a person make pronouncements on a place if they can’t even read, write or speak the language of the people that constitute the nation? Can a Japanese grandmother living in London, say, with her family who have moved there, but who has never become proficient in English, make sweeping judgements about the country she finds herself in, just by looking, absorbing, feeling? I think she can. But others might not think so.

  3. Tara C

    I’ve long had an interest in linguistics and have studied a smattering of languages, including Japanese, back in college. The only one I speak fluently is French. Foreign alphabet languages are a tough slog and after one year of Japanese I decided it wasn’t something I wanted to invest the effort it would require to become fluent (reading and writing are critical for me, just speaking isn’t enough). I decided to stick to Spanish & Italian after that.

    I am keen to read her book out of curiosity though. Bernard Pivot had a show in France called Double Je where he interviewed artists/writers who chose to live/work in French. Fascinating.

    • I find the the whole topic extremely stimulating, like you, and I am sure this will be an amazing read. She isn’t afraid to reveal/expose herselfeither; it’s supposed to be truly hilarious in places as well, which having met her I don’t doubt for a second.

    • Thanks. What is great about Polly is that she is intellectual but also hilarious; respectful of her second home but also not afraid of critiquing it in a really interesting way. I am really looking forward to just reading it all in one go. It’s just what I need right now.

  4. OnWingsofSaffron

    Have preordered the book. Sounds exceptional!

  5. Robin

    Sounds like a book I would love. Polly sounds brilliant. My god. To learn Japanese as an adult well enough to translate it in magnificent, sensitive fashion: it really is beyond anything I could conceive doing myself. I mean, FAR beyond. There is something very lazy about my brain. I’ve always known it. It either doesn’t have the discipline, or ability to concentrate or absorb or process. Whatever it is, I don’t have it. Some things I soak up and can be tediously knowledgeable about — ask me about food and wine pairings, or colour design theory, or practical mathematics — but it’s an osmosive, intuitive thing. It just happens, almost passively. It feels like a latent knowledge that merely gets triggered into awareness.

    Really interesting, the question of whether or not it’s possible to understand and judge another culture without fully knowing the language (your grandma example). Even if you can understand and judge a culture, can you do the same with an individual person without being able to really listen to them, to hear — to know — what they think beyond the rudimentary? I tend to think we can, but that could be wrong. Maybe. Probably. I mean, some people aren’t huge talkers in English (Ric) and I understand them deeply.

    • It’s an endless topic that I love.

      I can’t wait to read this, to be honest . I know I will know exactly what she is talking about : also, having a good friend in common, I know we have a certain sensibility.

      My brain is like yours.

      Conscientiousness was never my forte.

  6. She sounds amazing!! I adore languages, and absorb them like a sponge, I am multi-lingual, and I am able to speak some basic Japanese, enough to make my way around when I eventually am over there, so reading her book would be a delight. I do have to say that kanji is a bit daunting, but I am able to read some of them. I always tell Nate that if we were to move to Japan for around 3-4 months, I would probably be well on my way to having a good foundation of the language and would be fluent in about 6 months. As you can tell, I desperately want to come to Japan and live for a brief stay and study so I will be fluent. I just feel it is truly impossible to truly comprehend and understand a culture until you really understand the nuances of the language. So much gets lost in translation.

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