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In FIFTY SOUNDS, winner of the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, Polly BARTON attempts to exhaust her obsession with the country she moved to at the age of 21, before eventually becoming a literary translator. From min-min, the sound of air screaming, to jin-jin, the sound of being touched for the very first time, from hi’sori, the sound of harbouring masochist tendencies, to mote-mote, the sound of becoming a small-town movie star, FIFTY SOUNDS is a personal dictionary of the Japanese language, recounting her life as an outsider in Japan. Irreverent, humane, witty and wise, FIFTY SOUNDS is an exceptional debut about the quietly revolutionary act of learning, speaking, and living in another language. FIFTY SOUNDS will publish with Fitzcarraldo, April 14th 2021; see here.

Ahead of its publication, see below for TWO of these FIFTY sounds, both written down and read aloud by BARTON.


I saw it all the time, before it happened, after it happened, an event whose symbolic value far exceeded that of its actual happening: the ferry pulling away from the harbour for the last time with me on it. There would be the whirring of the engines, the smashing of the gong as it pulled away, and then once it was onto the open water, the ferry would let out a deep bellow that seemed to emanate from its very bowels. I don’t actually know now if the horn was ever sounded, but this was how I saw it in my head and that image surpassed everything else. BO’ is how you say the sound in Japanese. Spoken it is very low, half animal and half mechanical. I’d learned it recently, and was fixated with it, but even that seemed a meagre approximation of the sound of the ferry as I heard it in my head. That sound resonated forever.


One of the first things I remember from my time as a philosophy undergraduate was a dawning sense of terror at the way people around me spoke. Sitting on the polished-wood benches in the lecture hall, I watched in astonishment as the mouths around me opened  to release long, intricately structured sentences, unhalting and studded with all the right buzzwords. Even more noteworthy than these oratory skills was the burning desire to speak that I sensed running through their pronouncements, a desire that seemed the polar opposite of my wish to remain as quiet as possible. Where my peers appeared to see philosophy as an arena for dialogue, I conceived of it as something which I thought and felt too deeply about to be able to discuss it with just anyone, although it is impossible to say whether in fact that was just an excuse for avoiding the humiliation of doing it badly.

I was a mess at Cambridge, and thinking back to that time now still feels painful. Maybe as a response to this, I sometimes find myself wondering—impossibly, nonsensically, as if out of some instinct to solve and thereby heal the past—if my experience would be different if I had had then more of the confidence I do now. Particularly, I fixate on the question of whether I would be able to be more vocal in classes; if I’d find it in me to express myself like someone for whom self-expression wasn’t so torturous. I put meaningless questions like this one to myself, and generally come to the conclusion that I would, indeed, give it more of a go; I’d put myself through the shame of speaking out in that hard-edged male environment, and get good at talking the talk. Somehow this conclusion consoles me that I am not a total lost cause.

And yet fairly recently, for the first time in ages, I was given the opportunity to talk philosophy in a context that should have been totally unintimidating, and I messed it up in a way I still think about often. I was out with a friend on a long walk, with swathes of road ahead of us, when he came out and asked me to explain to him what exactly Wittgenstein had said, and what it was I liked about him. I’ve made it a policy in my life, more or less, not to talk about philosophy unbidden, because I’ve learned that the avenues it leads down are rarely satisfying for anybody involved, but here was an explicit invitation. There was no obvious excuse for me not to do the topic justice, and I felt, for a brief second, pretty optimistic. I girded my loins, opened my mouth to begin, and then down it rained on me: a premonition of total failure—the exact same premonition that I’d felt back in university which I’d found so paralysing. I remembered, then, what it was like: the white sheet of total fear that seems to descend before the eyes, through which I can glimpse a stretch of infinite possibilities. I remembered how perfectly insurmountable it feels.

In fairness to myself, I would say that Wittgenstein is not an easy philosopher to give a brief introduction to, and the possibilities for where to begin are genuinely plentiful. Part of the problem is that really, there are two

Wittgensteins; he produced two distinct and irreconcilable bodies of thought over the course of his life, as encapsulated by his two best-known works, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations. The philosopher whom I credit with having shaped my way of conceptualizing language and whom I think about all the time is the later Wittgenstein, the Investigations Wittgenstein, so in a sense I would have been justified in diving straight into him, but I didn’t feel comfortable with simplifying in this way. Maybe it’s something to do with the way that I was taught at university, but I can’t shake the feeling that the radicalness of the Investigations only truly makes sense within the context of what came before it, which reached its most extreme articulation with the Tractatus.

Given which, I see now with the clarity of hindsight, I should have seized the stage I’d been handed by my friend and headed assuredly and engagingly for the lengthy director’s cut version of the Wittgenstein story, starting out with an account of what the Tractatus represented.

I should have talked about how it developed from a near-ubiquitous view of language where words name objects in the world and ‘sentences are combinations of such names’. More particularly, how it grew out of a quest to understand the relationship between mind, language and world that Wittgenstein had inherited from Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, where the logical proposition was seen as the key to revealing the structure of both thought and the universe itself. I should have explained all of this in a way that didn’t dwell too much on specifics, but still managed to establish the key point: the emphasis with this way of thinking lay not on the actual usage of language, which was an inevitably messy and changeable matter, but rather the eternal truths revealed by the laws of logic: as Frege put it, the ‘boundary stones set in an eternal foundation’.

In actuality, feeling a strong sense of self-imposed pressure, I rushed through this part of the explanation, diving straight into the most bewildering elements of early Wittgensteinian thought out of some sense they would be the most attention-grabbing. I explained how when Wittgenstein drafted the latter parts of the Tractatus on the Eastern Front during the First World War, ethics and religion were much on his mind, and though these matters formed a late addition to the book’s inventory of topics, Wittgenstein’s way of dealing with them was to deem them literally meaningless to speak about, insisting that the only meaningful propositions were facts about worldly states of affairs. Indeed, one of the strangest aspects to the Tractatus, I told my friend, is that the propositions making it up themselves emerge as meaningless, precisely the sorts of things that can only be shewn and not said. What surfaces from the terse numbered propositions making up the book, I continued, is a bleak, mystical, lonely landscape inhabited by these alien entities, where communication about anything of significance is technically impossible. And then, seeing my friend’s look of understandable confusion, I tried immediately to rush on. I waved a hand and said never mind, nobody really gets the Tractatus. What really matters is the next bit, and the next bit goes like this.

There was a brief spell when Wittgenstein felt that with the schema he’d laid out in the Tractatus, he had cracked the central questions of philosophy as his cohort had understood them; as he wrote in a letter to his mentor Russell at the time, ‘I believe I’ve solved all our problems finally. This may sound arrogant but I can’t help believing it.’ And yet before the Tractatus was even published, which admittedly took some years, its author had begun to grow dissatisfied. Neither was this dissatisfaction over just a few niggling, unresolved issues within the system he had laid out. Rather, the ideas that began crowding in upon Wittgenstein suggested a radically alternative way of construing our language.

Namely, what if our language was not in fact ‘a flawed, distorting mirror’ of reality, but a complex, naturally evolved system to be taken on its own terms? What if, in order to attain a clear view of our interaction with the world, we had to train our eyes not on the idealized abstractions of logical representation, but rather the intricacies of the words we used on a daily basis? What if language assumes meaning through its usage in the community that gives birth to it, and its primary function is not the internal thought but the social interaction? What if unravelling the truth behind key concepts was not a question of isolating their form, but rather tracking the myriad ways they were used in the real world? If the true task of the philosopher was to put his or her ear to the ground? What if, ultimately, the path to untangling our linguistic reality lay not in idealization and abstraction and prescription, but observation and specificity and description?

History has it that as these questions became ever more irrepressible, Wittgenstein began to conceive of an entirely new approach to philosophy. ‘What we do,’ read the new mission statement from a man who had, until not so long ago, awarded a key role in his philosophical system to logical entities like ‘atomic facts’, whose precise nature was obscure to him, ‘is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their every day use.’ From being at the vanguard of advocating a distinctly un-everyday approach to words, Wittgenstein became the philosopher who aimed to rescue people from the seductive pull of the ‘crystalline’ ideal, which he knew from first-hand experience led only to bad philosophy, and to help them find clarity in a different form instead—a dirtier, realer, and more bottom-up one: ‘When I talk about language (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day.’

Except my real-time explanation was, of course, less coherent than this. Not only could I not quote directly from memory, but I couldn’t paraphrase well either. I was torn between not wanting to use language that would alienate my friend, and not wanting to dumb down too much, yet I’m not enough of a speaker to be able to tread that line and explain the concepts in simple language which still conveys their radicalness. In fact, I remember being quite alarmed when I heard the words falling from my own mouth: how self-evident, how nothingy they sounded. And then I heard myself wrapping up: ‘So language is just, like, as we use it!’

‘Oh, right,’ said my friend.

I don’t know if it was his disappointment I felt in that moment or my own, but either way, I couldn’t bear it. Sensing the prospect of both Wittgenstein’s appeal and my own being consigned to the funeral pyre, my mouth started talking with the speed that until just a few seconds ago was unattainable: ‘Maybe you can’t understand how great it is without understanding the context,’ I gabbled. ‘Maybe it’s impossible if you can’t see what a real breath of fresh air it is in comparison to everything else that went before. Maybe if you haven’t experienced the impulse to idealize language in the first place, it’s just not going to be that revolutionary.’

I would say that, of the entirety of my car-crash explanation, this is the part I regret the most—regretted it, in fact, even as it came out of my mouth. The worst thing about it was not that it was so obviously an excuse for my own inarticulacy, nor that it tried to shift the blame for the anticlimax onto my friend’s lack of philosophical training. Rather, it was how it made out philosophy to be something that only rescues people from itself, and implied that idealizing and essentializing language is something that only philosophers would ever do, which is the opposite of what I believe to be the case. For sure, philosophers have thought and theorized about these topics more than the average layperson, and their idealization is more visible, more explicit, and often more ontologically fantastic, but I believe that for the most part, the mistakes of the philosophers largely reflect our inherited view of language, particularly as monolinguals—which is one reading of Wittgenstein’s declaration that philosophy ‘is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language’. Our language is the lens through which the world is constituted for us, and as long as that remains for us a unitary default (as long as we are part of the linguistic majority) we never have the opportunity to question it, or at least to do so in a fundamental, world-shifting, ground-pulled-from-under-one’s-feet way. We do not learn to define our context at all, because it is transparent to us; it is only a short step from this to a felt sense that this is all that is possible. Which means, necessary. And thus the contingencies of our very contingent reality—the sociocultural context into which we are born—take on an unshakeable aspect of profundity and permanence; we confuse the rules of our framework, which Wittgenstein calls ‘grammatical propositions’, with deep, metaphysical truths. I strongly believe that even if we do not go so far as formulating intellectually the idea that the structure of our language in some deep sense mimics the structure of the world, this is the default understanding from which we work; that as Wittgenstein puts it, ‘It is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at. It never occurs to us to take them off.’ I believe this not only because I studied Wittgenstein and idolized him, but because it was corroborated by being in Japan, an experience I would describe in its most succinct form

as having the glasses pulled off my face and sensing in acute detail the struggle my myopic monolingual eyes went through. I believe it because I have felt it to be true.

Of course, I didn’t say any of this to my friend. Instead we changed topic, gladly putting Wittgenstein behind us. But almost as soon as my failed explanation was over, I started wondering what I would do if I had this opportunity over again. How could I have done better? Should I have ditched the attempt to speak about the philosophy itself, at least at first, and made it more of a narrative? I could have begun with the psychological aspect of Wittgenstein’s big shift, and my admiration for the willingness he showed in exposing his previous flaws. It strikes me again and again that although people are for the most part very accepting of the idea that true creation necessitates destruction, that genius sweeps the path of old fogeys and outdated value systems and ruthlessly exposes weakness, there’s not much talk of what to do when it is your own past ideas that are littering the path. What if you have published works you later realize are terribly flawed, privately subscribed to or publicly endorsed ideals you now find abhorrent? What if the work you need to destroy is your own? I think the answer generally modelled in the world, particularly in academic circles, is to remain sheepish, to attempt to sweep any misdemeanours under the carpet and pray they’re not found out; if you absolutely have to change your beliefs, do it so gradually that it’s possible people may not notice. At the very least, don’t go out of your way to publicize your errors. I am fascinated by the way Wittgenstein ignored this precedent entirely, choosing to savage his past contributions with unstinting humility, taking swipes throughout the Investigations at ‘the author of the Tractatus’. There are numerous extraordinary elements to Wittgenstein’s biography, and one is the candidness with which he spoke to others of what he perceived as their failings, but more refreshing still is his openness about his own shortcomings, even within the context of his philosophical works. ‘A picture held us captive and we could not get outside it,’ he says, in reference to the so-called Picture Theory of Meaning at the heart of the Tractatus, ‘for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.’ In part, it’s this honesty about reckoning with the past which makes the Investigations feel to me not just human, but also urgent and believable—the same brand of urgency and believability you could imagine in a self-help book from someone who has devised a method of hauling himself from the depths of addiction. And in a sense it is an addiction, or at least an affliction, which is rife not just among philosophers but great swathes of the general populace.

I would have liked to have conveyed to my friend that, although it’s the content of Wittgenstein’s later work which is important to me, I feel his journey there gives it an added layer of meaning. It’s fascinating to look at the transition between these two utterly different philosophical methodologies, to see the way that the Tractatus’ rigour and quest for clarity are transfigured now into a radically new form. And from here, continues the fantasy, I could have gone on to talk about how

this transition can be seen in the structure of the books— which I think, in retrospect, is what might have most excited my friend, who is amongst other things a visual artist. One of the reasons the Tractatus was and is such an esoteric wet dream for so many is that it is seen to have realized the fantasy of total mathematical purism of language, with each sentence or paragraph numbered according to a unique system whereby the relationship of all the sentences to one another can be intuited by their numerical value. I find it amazing that while the Investigations ditches this complex classification system, it retains the broad structure of numbered Bemerkungen or ‘remarks’, unusual in the context of philosophical treatises at that time. Yet if the look on the page is roughly comparable between the two books (even though the Investigations’ remarks are often considerably longer) the significance of this structure has undergone a more or less complete shift. Far from the polished propositions we find in the Tractatus, like ball bearings lined up in immaculate rows, the Investigations is more like an assorted collection of rocks and pebbles of varying sizes. The fragmented structure evokes the notebook; indeed, much of what is published of late Wittgenstein outside of the Investigations was taken from his actual notebooks, blurring the distinction between manuscript and rough draft, and the title one of his other key works, Zettel, literally means ‘slips of paper’. And yet this manner of presentation seems to stem from something more than sheer expediency—something that sits hand in glove with the whole methodology it aims to promote.

Rather than holding out bottled certainties in the form of categorical statements, the Investigations seeks to show itself in the act of groping for truth, so that the reader might also learn how to do the same. Specifically, Wittgenstein’s shift from a didactic model to a therapeutic one is signalled not only by a more tentative style of writing, but also by the inclusion of excerpts in the style of reported conversations between unnamed parties, so that readers experience the sensation of putting their ear up to the door of Wittgenstein’s rooms and catching a snatch of one of his infamously long discussions. The reader is left with the distinct impression that what matters is less the exact results being conveyed, and more the way of parsing the world that the book imparts. In the preface, Wittgenstein himself notes that ‘after several unsuccessful attempts to weld [his] results together’ into a coherent whole, he accepted that ‘the best he could write would never be more than philosophical remarks’; that he realized at some point that this format was ‘connected with the very nature of the investigation’, forcing us as it does ‘to travel over a wild field of thought criss-cross in every direction’.

What does a ‘criss-cross’ manuscript actually look like, we might legitimately ask. In this case, it looks like a profusion of questions, sometimes great paragraphs composed almost entirely of them. When there are statements, they are often clearly signalled as conversational gambits, beginning perhaps ‘I want to say:’ or ‘Suppose I say:’ or ‘One is inclined to say:’ or ‘It will be possible to say:’. There are em-dashes, illustrations, and more italics than seem feasible; there are swathes of brackets and symbols and double ellipses. The whole book is peppered with exclamation marks. All told, this is not what we think of as academic prose, especially not within the philosophical tradition. It’s amped up, somehow feverish, like a fiercely precocious child tugging at you and demanding to be listened to. And yet, maybe exactly because it needs your attention, there is something compulsive to it also. Bizarre and unsettling, but each time I pick up my fat grey copy of the Investigations with Wittgenstein on the front and let my eyes fall across its pages, I feel a visceral comfort rippling out from my centre. I feel like I’m talking to a person. Or, perhaps I should say: I feel as though I am talking to a person!

And indeed, we find an exclamation mark also rounding off what is perhaps the Investigations’ most famous sentence: ‘Back to the rough ground!’ With the charismatic nature of Wittgenstein’s prose, there are any number of propositions that we could take as slogans for his overall project, but in terms of succinctness, this one is hard to beat. ‘We are talking about the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language, not about some non-spatial, non-temporal chimera,’ he reminds us. ‘We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!’

And now, in the next stage of this fantasy diatribe, I tell my friend that at the time I discovered Wittgenstein, I needed friction and rough ground, very badly. It would be an exaggeration to say that it was the Philosophical Investigations that sent me to Japan, but at the time that I encountered it, it was becoming clearer by the day that the rarefied air of Cambridge was not doing me well.

Ever since I’d got there, all I’d done was wish myself different —maybe I’d always wished myself different, but now the wishing was an obsessive drone that filled my waking consciousness. Every day I would struggle to become sheer mind, my body a graceful cipher, and every day I would fail. Every day I would pray to wake up and be able to speak in perfect polished sentences like the people around me, and every day I’d find that, surprise surprise, I couldn’t, and I still blushed horribly when I tried. There was therefore something about the Investigations which felt to me remarkably like self-acceptance. Reading it made me feel very sure that I wanted to get the hell out of the place, and go somewhere with plenty of grit.

And finally, in this imaginary encounter, I tell my friend about how, as I was first sitting down to write this book, a thought came to me. In the Japanese translation of the Investigations, ‘rough ground’ would be rendered with an onomatopoeic word. It had to be so. It would be so, and this would prove the viability of this whole project, the coherence of my whole concept for writing this book. Suddenly, I was nauseated with excitement and nerves, as if the viability of everything I wanted to write about hung on the translation of this one phrase. Unable to wait, I asked a friend in Japan to check next time he found himself in the library. In a few hours, I had a text back from him: ‘Zara-zara shita jimen ni modorō!’

And like that, I had passed my own test: zara-zara was the mimetic word for ‘rough’, and a word I knew very well. I could picture the gesture that people would make when they said it, moving their four fingers from side to side across a surface, actual or imagined. I was pretty sure that the man I’d been in love with had said it several times of my skin. I’d heard kids say it of the floor, the walls. Now it was there, translating Wittgenstein’s ‘rauhen Boden’, his earthy war cry.

It was just a tiny fact, a small serendipity of translation, and I could see that to get over-excited about it was fetishistic. But there was no disavowing that part of me wanted to scream for joy, and not purely because I’d had my project redeemed. It was also because I truly felt that, although Wittgenstein had doubtless never encountered the word zara-zara (or any other Japanese mimetic for that matter), it served as an encapsulation of much of his worldview. It was a word that had no pretensions to purity, whose affective dimension drew the attention back to the behavioural practices surrounding language. It was a word that wore its genealogy and its humanity on its sleeve, which felt perfectly of the soil. It was a word free of clear ideas, full of bodies, and rugged with friction.

Polly BARTON is a Japanese literary translator. Her translations include Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, and Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki. She lives in Bristol.


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