Ann Richardson
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Tongue-tied in the booth.

HOW DO NARRATORS KNOW HOW TO PRONOUNCE STUFF?

You’re listening to an audiobook and the narrator smoothly and confidently rattles off a word that’s quite lengthy, unfamiliar, and odd-sounding. You’re flummoxed, discombobulated, and you marvel at the reader’s elocution.  To be honest, the author’s generous sprinkling of such large words seems pedantic to you at times, but secretly you’re wondering if you’re just under-educated.  Well, don’t feel badly. Although overwhelmingly narrators are very well-read and possess a larger-than-normal vocabulary, many of them still look up the pronunciation of words that, at first glance, would seem simple in their pronunciation.

A NARRATOR’S GOT TO KNOW HIS/HER LIMITATIONS

Good narrators recognize that geography, demographics, and even economic status can play a large role in how certain words are pronounced.  I narrated a book about food in which the word “grocery” was used liberally.  I’m from the near center of the United States, and we’ve always said “grow shree”, but I was fully aware that other parts of the county pronounce it “grow sir ee”. I had to email the producer and ask what they preferred.  Another example: in most parts of the country cowboys and cowgirls participate in an event involving skill at riding horses and bulls. This is called a “ROE-dee-OH”, unless you’re in Salinas, California, where it’s called a “roe DAY oh”. Or, if I’m narrating a book set in New York, and the street “Houston” appears, I know (only because I’ve been there) that it’s pronounced “house-tun; but before I’d visited New York I would have automatically pronounced it “hyoos-tun”.

BOOK PREPPERS – AN INVALUABLE RESOURCE

These pitfalls are a major part of why many narrators hire professional book preppers. A professional book prepper charges around $25 per hour to read through a book, note unusual words and proper nouns, look up the pronunciation, and create a spreadsheet for the narrator to use for reference.  Preppers may also take notes on the characters in the book, listing anything mentioned in the text that could help a narrator form a voice for that person. For example, did the character grow up in a Southern state? Does he/she have a lisp? Speak rapidly? Stutter? In addition, the prepper may give notes summarizing the arc of the story, chapter by chapter. All of these help a narrator visualize the performance.

ONLINE RESOURCES

But what if a narrator cannot hire a prepper and must do the research him/herself?   When this happens to me, I pre-read the book and create a spreadsheet of words for which I must look up pronunciations. Often, if I’m narrating for a large publisher, I receive instructions on which sites to use when researching, and in what order of preference. Otherwise I search sites such as Forvo.com, Howjsay.com, YouTube.com, YouGlish.com, Hearnames.com, and pronounce.voanews.com. (I make sure to find several different sites’ pronunciations, because there are variations among the sites, especially YouTube, and go with the pronunciation that’s used most often.)

Another amazing resource to use when narrating a book with foreign language throughout, is AudioEloquence.  This is a language, dialect, and accent research website maintained by my fellow narrators and all-around swell women, Judith West and Heather Henderson, specifically for audiobook narrators. This site is not a pronunciation site per se, but rather a listing of websites that focus on specific languages.  For example, say you’re narrating a book on the Inuit tribes and you visit Audio Eloquence. You scroll down to ”PRONUNCIATION SITES BY LANGUAGE” and look for Native American languages, then, logically, Inuit resources. You see this link:  Inuktitut Tusaalanga: Glossary,  follow it, and BINGO! You’ve found everything you need in order to speak their words as if you just came off the ice flow with a sled-full of whale blubber for your winter food supply.

Now the last super-resource for narrators is relatively new. It’s www.pronounceology.com. Brainchild of accomplished narrator, Adam Verner, it is a subscription service that does all of the work for a narrator with a long list of words to research. Here’s an excerpt from the site: “Pronounceology allows you to search multiple online dictionaries at once, in bulk…You can import search terms in multiple ways, including cutting and pasting a word list, type directly into the search box, import a spreadsheet, or upload a highlighted PDF.  Pronounceology then takes your search terms and runs them through online dictionaries to find you one authoritative result.”

CALL AROUND

Let’s say you’ve been trying mightily for hours to find a pronunciation of a proper noun online, to no avail. You’ve posted your problem word in the Face Book narrators groups, begging for help, but it’s in the wee hours of the morning and no one is replying. (We narrators are prone to working into the night because:

  1. it’s quieter than midday, when the leaf-blowers, UPS trucks, kids, circling airplanes and solicitors are out in full force,
  2. it’s cooler in the summer hours, when we sit, sweating in our hot-boxes narrating, and/or
  3. we’ve over-committed to too many narration projects and our deadlines are impossibly short).

Picking up the phone and calling around is usually fruitful. Bars, ethnic restaurants, libraries, embassies, airlines, and city and county non-emergency phone centers are very helpful places to phone to hear how a local pronounces things. Even if the business or office is closed, chances are the voicemail greeting will be helpful, especially if one is calling to hear the pronunciation of someone’s name.

And about pronouncing a person’s name… YouTube has wonderful resources, and the most beneficial I’ve found have been recorded interviews, where the speaker is introduced. I specifically stay away from TED talks, because almost as a rule they never include speaker introductions! And besides that, I always get sucked into watching a couple of them while I’m at it; they’re fascinating, and before I know it I’ve lost an hour of productive recording time.

ASK FRIENDS

If a narrator is still unable to find the pronunciation needed by searching online, it’s time to get creative. Facebook has been a wonderful resource for many narrators, and it’s not uncommon to see a post in one of the various narrator forums that goes like this: “Hey, hive mind, I’m narrating a book set in medieval Scotland and one of my characters has a Scandinavian servant who grew up in Mesopotamia. Anyone know how to pronounce Olgaherodustonflug?”  And then half a dozen narrators will comment, usually with something facetious and irreverent, but more often than not, someone will have a solid answer.

Here’s an example of a recent plea for help in one of the narrator groups: (all names have been deleted for privacy.)

OP: “Any Scots able to help me with the pronunciation of this: Thaeilean-beag’wighleisa’bhith a’gabhail luchd-tadhail?

Narrator #1 – Scots is pretty similar to Irish Gaelic and I can usually reason out what the pronunciations are from that. Having said that, I’ve never seen some of those words. Is this definitely correct? I’ll ask around and see if I can find someone who can help.

Narrator #2 – Checking with my native Scots friend!

Narrator #2 – Sorry. Apparently, she’s from the Lowlands and they don’t do Gaelic, which is what she says that looks to be.

Narrator #3 – if it’s in fact Scots Gaelic, it’s one of the most endangered of Celtic languages… or so it says HERE (and you might give them a call, maybe they could help you out). https://sbs.arizona.edu/…/ua-researchers-help-preserve…

Narrator #4 – Let me see if my Scottish cousins have any advice! This is a closed group so I can’t just tag them in.

Narrator #5 – Unless they live in the Western Isles or the far north, don’t bother. Only a few places teach Gaelic now  https://www.tiree.argyll-bute.sch.uk/contact-us  The High School on Tiree teaches Gaelic. Might be worth sending them a message.

I never followed up to see if the OP got her answer, but I’ll bet she did.

Here’s another scenario that recently played out for me:

I was tapped by a publisher to narrate a holocaust survivor memoir. The author lived in the Netherlands prior to being sent to Birkenau (a concentration camp in Poland) and as you can imagine, there were many Dutch places, names and words that were going to take me days to research on the internet. Unless……hmmmm…  I packed up a couple of jars of prickly pear cactus jelly I’d just made, grabbed my cellphone and spreadsheet of the words in question, and walked two doors down to my neighbor, Ingrid, who happens to be from the Netherlands! She graciously went through my list, pronouncing the words for me while I recorded her on my cellphone and quickly scribbled down the phonetic pronunciation on my spreadsheet. She was happy to help, was tickled with my bribe of the jelly, and it took less than an hour to get all of my pronunciations from an expert.

WE ARE HUMAN

Now, with all these research methods and resources, let me be perfectly clear:  narrators are humans, and we do make mistakes. Sometimes the issue is not us; publishers, editors, or directors may want us to pronounce something differently than we have learned it, and even when we gently assert that we’ve got proof that it’s pronounced “our” way, in the end it’s not our decision. (Don’t get me wrong, although we may differ on pronunciations occasionally, these demigods save our bacon innumerable times per project and we LOVE THEM!) We also have that blind spot; remember my example from earlier?  Houston St. in New York is pronounced “House tun” and not “Hyoos tun”.

So, dear audiobook listener, we love you, and hopefully this blog has shed some light on the behind-the-scenes production of an audiobook. But please remember when you’re writing your review and you’re about to lambast us for pronouncing Kearney, Nebraska, as “kern ee” instead of “karn ee”, that we may have never been to Kearney and did not know it was a tricky pronunciation, or maybe we were told by the director to pronounce it “kern ee” despite our protest and subsequently losing the arm wrestling match we suggested to settle the deal. Or… maybe it’s you. Have you ever found out, late in life, that you’ve been pronouncing something wrong the whole time?  It happens. Please be kind.

It's hard work, pronouncing all that stuff...