For writer and translator Polly Barton, you’ll find “the beating heart of Japanese” in onomatopoeia, mimetic language that sounds like what the words signify.

Bow-wow. Woof-woof. ワンワン. (Wan-wan, rhymes with “bonbon.”)

Japanese has a massive onomatopoeic vocabulary second only to Korean, claims Barton, who set out to master this essential aspect of the language:

“I ditched my previous ambition to master the bewilderingly complex web of honorifics that even native speakers routinely get wrong, and which always seemed to distinguish hardcore Japanophiles from those whom Japanese society merely humored, and set my sights instead on being able to use mimetic language properly, naturally.”

Polly Barton

In Fifty Sounds (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021), Barton uses onomatopoeic vocabulary to construct a memoir of her experiences in Japan as an English teacher in the JET program.

In starting a blog, I’ve been thinking about one of those fifty sounds, giro’ «ぎろっ», per Barton, “a sound of utter attention…letting your eyes fulfil their natural, most aquiline potential…using the assets biology and society have granted you to make immodest demands of people.”

“And yet there was something in the way she leaned in and frowned slightly when I spoke, as though she were trying to locate something she’d dropped in a clouded stream, the way her light eyes latched onto me as if trying to see through to whether or not I was worth bothering with, which sent a shimmer of metallic excitement through my veins”

Fifty Sounds, p. 7

The apostrophe at the end of giro’ signifies a glottal stop, and within the space of that apostrophe, the penetrating gaze of the viewer decides whether to pay attention or not. To be the object of giro’ is palpable, “palpable” sounding like a rapid heartbeat. Is that onomatopoeia or just poetic?

Go ahead, giro’.