Or, An Audiobook Narrator Offers His Advice on How Narrators New to the Field Should Tackle The Mountain of Made-Up Words They’ll Face in Epic Fantasy Series
If you’re a regular reader (or listener) to this column, then you’ve already experienced me waxing poetic about THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, THE UNBELIEVER numerous times before here and here), so this time I thought I’d branch out slightly, be a bit more all-inclusive with both my subject and my audience. Given that the Covenant saga is so replete with exotic words, made up completely by the mind of Stephen R. Donaldson, I thought I would perhaps give some advice on how to…Keep Reading
If you’re a regular reader (or listener) to this column, then you’ve already experienced me waxing poetic about THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, THE UNBELIEVER numerous times before here and here), so this time I thought I’d branch out slightly, be a bit more all-inclusive with both my subject and my audience. Given that the Covenant saga is so replete with exotic words, made up completely by the mind of Stephen R. Donaldson, I thought I would perhaps give some advice on how to approach a problem that aspiring narrators face when doing a new fantasy series: how to tackle the difficult job of making an audiobook as similar as possible to the author’s intent by using their pronunciations instead of your own. I figured this would also be a cool bit of background, some making-of tidbits for the Covenant fans out there, to see just how all these particular wacky pronunciations were arrived at. (See? Two birds with one stone! Multi-tasking, baby, multi-tasking.)
A peek at the back of the latest Thomas Covenant novel shows that the series’ glossary has grown to 593 words. That’s 593 words that won’t be found in any language on Earth. If it were a standard fiction series, most of those words could be looked up someplace online. Alas, in fantasy novels that’s rarely the case. In such series, the language is usually what the author wants it to be, meaning there’s only one person who speaks it: the author him/herself. This means that you, as the narrator, are faced with only two options: guess how they’re pronounced, or go to the source.
In my case, I’d rather go to the source. Every time.
There was a recording done of DUNE, years ago, by an amazing narrator whose work I love, but unfortunately he didn’t have access to the author or his notes, and as a result, all the words were guessed at, and for me, I found it impossible to listen to. Part of that is my own particular preference as a science fiction/fantasy fan: I’m not interested in how I pronounce these words, or another narrator may pronounce these words, or even how a legion of fans may pronounce them; I only want to know the author’s take on things, that’s all, that’s it. Nothing else will suffice.
If you’re tempted to take your best guess and figure that’ll be good enough, my advice to you is, good enough usually isn’t. You may be a lifelong fan of the project, but that doesn’t mean your ability to guess is better than anyone else’s. If it had been up to me, I would probably have gone with the pronunciations from the David Lynch version of DUNE, but in almost every case those would’ve been wrong. (Crazy when you realize David Lynch hired DUNE author Frank Herbert as a technical adviser on the film and he STILL got them all wrong.) I also would have pronounced Terry Brooks’ mythical realm the wrong way: most people pronounce his seminal title as the Sword of Shuh-NAH-ruh, whereas he’s adamant that it’s SHAN-uh-ruh. And yes, I stumbled almost every time I said it Brooks’ way, but that’s because I’d listened to too many of the fans over the years pronouncing it THEIR way. And unfortunately, that way is just plain wrong. So SHAN-uh-ruh it is. Or, was.
All that said, I knew I had to speak to Stephen R. Donaldson for these Covenant words, and thankfully the publisher put me in touch with him. He was incredibly giving of his time, and we worked our way through each and every word in the glossary, which took over an hour to do. I recorded the conversation as we did so, then took the tape and transcribed it painstakingly into a Word document. (Narrator hint: recording phone conversations is alarmingly easy, and my advice would be to consult your local Radio Shack for the easiest method. Whichever you choose, however, experiment with it first. You don’t want to find out that the little suction cup attachment that’s supposed to work just fine didn’t capture any sound at all, especially if you’ve already had the author phone call and you now have nothing to transcribe, no way to recapture the sound you’ve lost. Trust me, I’ve done this, and you want to avoid it.)
Be easy on yourself and arrange your unfolding audio glossary alphabetically. If characters have last names, list them under that, though you might also want to have duplicate entries for their first names if last names aren’t used that often. Cross-referencing things is a huge help. And if it’s a case like the Covenant books, where character names are often linked together with family member’s names, such as Mhoram son of Variol, or Hyrim son of Hoole, you’ll want to make sure and have separate entries for each of those names, parent and child. Sometimes you’ll be talking about Hoole without mentioning Hyrim, but if you don’t remember that he’s Hyrim’s father you won’t know where to find him in the glossary.
Sound confusing? Well, it is, but once you immerse yourself in a series, it gets easier.
My audio glossaries typically have two primary entries, one for the way the word is spelled in the book, and another for phonetic spellings.
But sometimes these crazy, made-up words defy translation to the page. Sometimes the individual syllables are so soft or subtle that it’s difficult to tell what’s correct. If the author gives any additional instructions, I always note it on the side.
Bannor: BAAN-r is preferred, though BAAN-oer is fine
Sometimes the details are even more subtle, and require longer explanations:
dharmakshetra: DAHR-mahk-SHET-ruh; slightly aspirated H after the D, slightly rolled R at the end, consistent with all Waynhim names
And if you really want to be an overachieving nut like I am, you may also create individual sound files for each of these entries. I don’t recommend doing this every time, it requires a ton of work, but when you’re dealing with sequels (and name me a great fantasy novel that HASN’T had a sequel), having an additional first-generation source can be crucial. And this comes in especially handy when you’re dealing with phrases rather than individual words. It’s always handy to be able to hear something rather than reading it.
Kelenbhrabanal marushyn! Rushyn hynyn kelenkoor rillynarunal! Ranyhyn Kelenbhrabanal! (Lithe calling Ranyhyn, THE ILLEARTH WAR, pgs. 371-2) KEHL-n-BRAH-ben-ahl MAH-roo-shin! ROO-shin HIN-in KEL-en-koor ri-lee-NAH-roo-nahl! RAH-nuh-hin KEHL-n-BRAH-ben-ahl!
Once you’ve created your audio glossary, the hard part’s done, and now the fun can begin: you get to actually record the novel! Keep a copy of the glossary on hand, either a hardcopy if you’re working in someone else’s studio, or a digital copy if you’re working in your own. Keep it open and in the background, because you’ll reference it often, and if you’re working with a producer, make sure they have a copy of it, and provide a copy to whomever’s going to be proofing the recording once you’re done, as well. The more eyes you have double-checking that your pronunciations are correct and consistent, the better.
Once the title is finished, and the proofing and editing are complete, it might seem that you’re done with your glossary, but trust me, you’re not. Keep a hardcopy in your files, and a digital copy on your hard drive, and make sure they’re in a logical, easy-to-remember location. The last thing you want is for three years to go by and find yourself the night before you’re set to record the sequel, looking frantically for the damn file. Trust me, I’ve been there too, and it’s a lonely place. If you’ve got a lot of these glossaries piling up, come up with a consistent labeling system so you can find the appropriate one swiftly.
For myself, getting to hear these words from Donaldson’s own mouth was an amazing experience, as I’d literally been wondering for 25 years how some of these things sounded. I also got to hear him clown around a bit, which was really cool, poking fun at his own words and their odd pronunciations. For instance, there’s a group of words mentioned in the series all the time, they’re essentially words of power:
Melenkurion abatha! Duroc minas mill khabaal!
In the story, by invoking them, powerful magics are often manifested. Powerful, POWERFUL magics. Well, when I asked him how they’re pronounced, he laughed softly and prefaced their pronunciation by joking, “Watching out for sudden thunder and appearances of mystical events…” It was a subtle thing, but it cracked me up.
He also told me that of all the words he’s ever invented, the one that generates the most debate among his fans is:
Huh. Never would’ve gotten that one right. Thank God I called first.
Well, I hope you enjoy THE POWER THAT PRESERVES. It’s been an amazing experience, and I truly appreciate all the support you’ve shown by purchasing each volume of this trilogy. Thanks for coming along for the ride.
And, as always, thanks for listening,