Pronunciation Guides

Simon Vance reading in the studio

One thing separating professional voice actors from the amateurs is the amount of preparation time they put into a book. There are occasional exceptions like Simon Vance who can deliver virtuoso performances despite never reading books in advance (he describes himself as “an excellent sight reader” who honed his skills while receiving scripts at short notice as a BBC news reader). But for every Simon Vance there are actors like Brad Pitt whose mispronunciations might have been avoided with a bit of prep time. (See “Read Me a Story, Brad Pitt: When Audiobook Casting Goes Terribly Wrong.”)

Publishers often prepare pronunciation guides to help narrators. Some of the most elaborate notes I’ve come across have been prepared by talking book studios, which go to great lengths to ensure that blind audiences have access to accurate recordings of printed books. These reports are often dozens of pages long.

The following set of guidance notes was prepared by Britain’s Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) for Dorothy Dunnett’s Gemini. The notes contain everything a narrator needs to know in order to read the book aloud.

Here are a few of the key questions:

What languages, British dialects, and foreign accents are spoken?

Who tells the story: a man or a woman? Approximately how old are they? Where are they from? What do they sound like?

Is the novel told in first-person?

Where is the book set?

Does the book contain sex, profanity, violence, or otherwise “disturbing” elements?

There are also useful notes about how other characters sound and the role played by various accents throughout the story. The bulk of the report is a pronunciation guide to names, technical terms, and otherwise tricky words.

What’s immediately clear from looking at all 18 pages of the report is how much work has gone into the recording even before the first word has been spoken. Brad Pitt might want to hire the report’s author if he decides to record another book.

Have a look for yourself. The full report is available here: Gemini Pronunciation Guide [PDF]

Credit: My thanks to Dave Thorpe for sharing the notes with me.

The Voice of the Poets

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There’s a terrific interview up on Slate between Bruce Holsinger, a historical novelist and professor of medieval literature, and Simon Vance, one of the great audiobook narrators. Pro that he is, Vance dispatches with the reading vs “cheating” debate in the first line in order to clear the way for more substantial questions about the audiobook as an art form in its own right. He makes a persuasive case for the narrator’s ability to enrich the reading experience.

Perhaps the most interesting question posed here is whether there’s such a thing as a “period voice” for, say, a 16th-century landowner. After all, narrators have enough trouble trying to voice characters without worrying about stuff like vowel shifts. Vance proposes an interesting compromise between authenticity and entertainment—or, as he puts it, no Swedish Chef voices. You’ll definitely want to hear Vance’s Henry VIII in the recording of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

A recording of Holsinger and Vance’s conversation can be found here: “The Voice of the Poets: The Life and Work of an Audiobook Narrator.”

When Words Sing

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John Schwartz continues to cover audiobooks for the New York Times with a recent piece on his favorite narrators. Schwartz begins by pointing out that a mediocre narrator can cause a reader to lose interest even in a good book. By contrast, a skilled narrator can bring out a book’s hidden depths or make it more enjoyable. Like many other readers, Schwartz often picks books not by their titles but by their narrators. Some of his favorites include Simon Vance, Grover Gardner, John Benjamin Hickey, and – spoiler alert – Rita Moreno.  Amateur readers receive a share of the praise too in the case of Andrew Solomon’s 962-page book, Far From the Tree. If picking favorites can at times seem impressionistic, Schwartz does a good job here of identifying exactly what he likes about each performance.

The full story is available here: “When Words Sing.”