In Barton’s revelatory and candid memoir, she frames her experiences in Japan in 50 dictionary entries, journeying through her vulnerabilities, otherness and identity in a foreign place and finding solace (and humour) in writing. One of the most powerful stories is about a death she witnesses, entitled 'uwaa: the sound of the feeling that cannot be spoken'. Grappling with emotion through the medium of language is, however, what Barton does best.
... begins slowly and not particularly engagingly, focusing more on the mechanics and fickleness of language. Whilst Barton’s ideas around translation and its slipperiness are interesting, it felt at times a little dry. However, when she brings in the human element, as she moves to Japan to work as a teacher and embarks upon an affair with a man senior to her both in age and in her work, the book really gets going. It becomes less about the abstraction of language and more about how the process of learning and absorbing another tongue is inflected by those we learn it from, and how we learn it. The katekanas work well here, as they show how another language can be made to fit but can also describe the shape and the feeling of something that cannot be expressed easily in one’s native tongue ... She describes accurately that feeling of not being truly at home both in your native and your adoptive country, of somehow being both too little and too much ... perhaps best read as it seems to be intended – as a series of phrases that build to a story, each of which expresses something subtly differing about the objects they describe: in this case, the life of the author, and of the country and language that becomes her own. Barton is adept at capturing language and life in the same way, showing the impossibility of true understanding, both of meaning and of the self. The vignette style of the book shows this slipperiness in elegant miniatures, but can at times be its downfall, their separation making the pace a little disjointed. However, Fifty Sounds is an engaging whole, a description of a country and a life that shows how we can never truly interpret ourselves, let alone the other. Perhaps the charm is in never fully understanding.
Throughout the memoir, Barton’s intelligence and erudition come across in every sentence of liltingly beautiful prose. As it is in her translations, her writing here is also unapologetically British ... isn’t perfect. Barton acknowledges her privileges in a Japanese context—that she gets to be a stranger in a strange land, that her whiteness covers all manner of sins—but she never really addresses her privileges back in the West ... For all this, though, she is always respectful of Japan and Japanese people. She never presents Japan as Other, reliably noting the things that might seem odd or idiosyncratic in her own culture as well. Above all, she is brutally honest about her feelings and failings ... what really makes the book sparkle is Barton’s abiding love of language itself ... Barton is brave. She celebrates this space between knowing and not-knowing a language. She approaches Japanese with the melancholy knowledge that she will never be able to fully integrate into the language’s embodied community. Nevertheless, her love of this liminal space is so great that she emboldens the reader, too, to sit in linguistic limbo.