Pronunciation: The Narrator’s Albatross

As an audiobook narrator you are expected to deliver a performance that is free of distracting or incorrect elements. Something as simple as a stomach rumble that is picked up by your very sensitive mic or a motorcycle passing by whose engine noise penetrates even the most carefully padded audio booth make you stop and redo the copy that was intruded upon.

That kind of thing is easily remedied, but the bugaboo of many of us who sit before the mic in the lonely booth is pronunciation. I am currently narrating a history book about the French and Indian War. In some 411 pages, the author explores the actions of the people and the impact of the policies of the French government that ultimately led to their defeat.

Here is a fairly typical passage from Chapter 2

Jean-Baptise de Machault d’Arnouville served until February 1757, when he lost the same fight with Pompadour that had toppled Argenson. He was replaced by Françios Marie Peyrenc de Moras, who was succeeded in May 1778 by Claude Louis d’Espinchal, marquis de Massac. In October of that year, Massac was replaced bu Nicholas René Berryer, who clung to power until October 1758…

I’m sure a French language scholar would breeze through that list of names and titles, but though I have a French name, I am no Maurice Chevalier when it comes to sounding like an exemplar of my heritage.

The solution is to fly to the Internet. There are numerous sites that can help, but some are limited in the range of names they will help you pronounce. YouTube can be a resource, but the selection of videos devoted to Claude-Louis d’Espinchal, marquise de Massac are far fewer in number than the numerous postings featuring cats falling into bathtubs.

One site that works well for me is How to Pronounce, which seems to recognize most anything you enter into the query box, which then takes you to several recorded audio pronunciations in nearly any language you can think of.  But for your narration do you want a French pronunciation of the name or an English pronunciation? It depends on how you want to approach the overall project. My choice is to go with an English pronunciation rather than slipping suddenly into a mellifluous rendition as a native speaker might.

Next step is to practice the pronunciation until its sounds right to your ear. Your job is to interpret the passage in a way that communicates the author’s meaning to listeners. You can’t do that if you suddenly go into a halting recitation of the name and title that just gets the job done. The pronunciation cannot be the focal point of your reading. It has to sound natural.

All this takes a great deal of time if you want to get it right. If you just guess at the pronunciations you don’t intuitively know, you are very likely to get the recording back from the publisher with a request to do them over. You don’t want to have to go back over an 18-hour recording and find and correct every mispronunciation of Machault d’Arnville everywhere it pops up in the 411 pages you just spent weeks recording.

You get better at finding and executing a credible pronunciation as you gain experience, but this is one element of audiobook narration that accounts for the fact that you’ll likely spend three hours or more for every “finished hour” you produce.

About Philip Benoit

A producer/narrator of audiobooks and voice-over announcer, I currently have 15 titles listed for sale on Audible. A search of my name on Amazon will provide a list of those books as well as a listing of college-level textbooks that I have co-authored. "Modern Radio and Audio Production" is currently in its tenth edition.

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