Words I Can’t Say: Pronunciation Guides for Audiobook Recordings

What do you do when the  producer of the audiobook version of your novel asks you to provide a pronunciation guide for words you have no idea how to say?

Many folks who grew up as voracious readers have probably experienced the embarrassment of knowing the meaning of a word before learning its pronunciation. This phenomenon tends to rear its ugly head at the most inopportune times—most often when one is trying to sound erudite in front of new acquaintances. In the company of learned peers, such a faux pas can feel mortifying.

After I graduated from college I had thought this particular nightmare was behind me. By that point my spoken vocabulary had mostly achieved parity with my reading level. Encouraged by the prospect of a future in which I would put words on pages and let others puzzle over them, I let myself get comfortable. Then I got lazy. And I got cocky.

 

What Do You Say, Writer-man?

In early December of 2017 I received an e-mail from the producer of the audiobook version of my original novel The Midnight Front, a story whose premise involves ceremonial black magic being practiced as part of a behind-the-scenes conflict during the Second World War. The producer asked me to do something I had done before for audiobooks of my previous novels: provide a pronunciation guide for specified proper nouns and exotic words in my manuscript, as a reference for the actor who would record the audiobook. But this request was different.

As I skimmed through the list of words, I realized I had dug myself into an inescapable pit. Having reproduced verbatim in my novel the content of Renaissance-era black-magic rituals, it had never occurred to me that I would at some point have to tell someone how to pronounce these words. The rituals included obscure phrases in bastardized Latin, consonant-heavy names of demons, and other archaisms for which no easy reference exists.

Off the top of my head, I had no idea how to say “Vindicta! Morietur, et draconi,” “Occidere monstrum,” “Iustitia et libertas,” or “Adiuro animae meaeanima tua potestate mea sit potestate, in condicionibus foederis.” And I found myself at a loss to think of anyone I knew who could.

 

Nice Place to Visit, But I Can’t Tell You Its Name

The producer also asked me to offer pronunciation guidance for the names of foreign cities. Some were Polish, some Scottish, but all were baffling to me. Loch Duich, Dębniki, Podgórze, Płaszów—try reciting that list five times fast. I can’t pronounce it even once.

The further down the list I went, the more befuddled I became. My producer wanted me to offer spoken examples of “Ut fulgur gladium meum,” “Audite vocem meam, et dolore esse parcendum,” and, perhaps most tongue-twisting of all, “venité, venité, submirillitor.” And don’t even get me started on Novgorodskaya Oblast.

Over the course of forty years I’ve gone from reading words that I don’t know how to use in conversation to writing books that contain words I can’t be trusted to speak without embarrassing myself. In the long run, I suppose, this might count as progress. If only I’d known what to tell my audiobook producer.

If you pick up a copy of my exciting new contemporary fantasy The Midnight Front in audiobook format and all the Latin phrases and foreign cities’ names are mispronounced, please don’t send angry mail to my producers. I assure you that the blame will rest with me alone.

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