QUARTERLY BLOG: THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT

Having the freedom to decide a book’s setting in space and time sometimes requires giving voice to languages which, due to their age, are typically read rather than spoken. In the case of Joanna Harris’ latest book Runemarks, this is Old Norse. Joanna herself has been on hand to offer help with articulating the language to our producer Richard Hughes, and our reader, Rosie Jones.

Of course, books do not have to be limited to real languages, ancient or modern. Science fiction is a case in point. The beauty of science fiction is that it allows you to create completely new ecosystems, worlds, and languages, and they add an extra consideration to producing audio - how do you pronounce characters, words, and place names which operate by their own logic? As such, it is crucial to maintain consistency between books in a series, especially when there may be no reference point beyond the author’s imagination. Museums, embassies and universities are wonderful resources to consult when researching the vagaries of French, Old Norse, or even Esperanto, but these are not usually available for invented words. In the case of Edward Cox’s Relic Guild trilogy, like Runemarks recorded for Orion Audiobooks, we were fortunate to call upon the know-how of the author when necessary, as well as the assiduous production of Jenny Leow for the first title in the trilogy, and Tamsin Collison for the latter two, most recently The Watcher Of Dead Time. Imogen Church has remained the reader throughout, with an extraordinary range of nuanced voices and ability to project Cox’s world to the listener.

For Pan Macmillan we recorded The Wonder, the latest book from Emma Donoghue, author of Room. Set in 19th century Ireland, it is alternately a historical investigation into the ‘fasting girls’ phenomenon, Gothic horror, and psychological thriller. With the novel positively reviewed by Stephen King amongst others, the reading from Kate Lock and production from Mary Price allowed it to flow, and tease out the suspenseful narrative. Kate was fantastic at representing the full cast of characters, who occupied a broad range of the age spectrum, from the aforementioned girls, to ‘decrepit’ maids and masters.

Following our recording of PD James’ back catalogue for Faber & Faber in 2014 and 2015, we were asked to record a new collection of the author’s work titled The Mistletoe Murder And Other Stories; an anthology of some of the author’s best Christmas themed mysteries. Two stories apiece were read by Daniel Weyman (who read the Adam reader bondsamanthaDalgliesh mysteries for us) and Jenny Agutter. James’ prose is always a joy to work with, and both Daniel and Jenny’s readings create that atmosphere of hidden menace which makes her work so gripping. Staying with the murder theme, and ensuring we had a bloody summer, was the long-awaited novel from Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders. A split read between Samantha Bond (pictured left) and Allan Corduner, the intricate, metafictional plot was held together with great performances from both.

Allan was also in our studio to record Amanda Lester And The Pink Sugar Conspiracy, written and self-published by the host of the Writing Show podcast, Paula Berinstein. It’s relatively rare to produce an audio version of a self-published book, but also a gratifying one; as Paula represented the book herself, we were, along with Allan and producer Tamsin Collison, able to exchange ideas about voices, accents, pronunciations directly, making the finished product a real collaborative effort. Once the book had been completed, I asked Paula how she’d found the process:

“Of course when you turn a text into audio, you come across words you may not know how to pronounce. We didn't have too many of those--maybe a dozen or so as I remember. It was fun recording the pronunciations and getting your feedback on them. No English person would say "Sidebotham" the way it's spelled, for instance. They would say "Sidebottom." Great, let's do that then.

Another issue that arose was one I'd thought about but didn't know how to resolve: regional accents. My characters come from all over. In the real world they'd speak with various accents, but I wasn't sure whether that was the right thing to do with the audio. Allan resolved that for me. He just did it! The fact that he changed some of them doesn't bother me at all. The way Allan did it--so subtly--is wonderful. You get the flavor of the accent without it being really strong. It's perfect!

There are other issues, of course: audio quality, meeting ACX's file specifications, and other technical things. This is why it's so important to have an experienced studio produce the book. I produced a podcast for years and used professional quality equipment, but I never would have tried to produce my own book. I just knew I wasn't good enough. I couldn't have asked for a better experience!”

Lifting words off the page is a careful task, but also one which, as Paula says, allows you to experience the qualities of the book in another dimension. Every so often a performer comes to our studio with a stellar talent for lifting words off the page, and Steve Coogan was one of those, in the character of Alan Partridge, for the ‘journey journal’ Nomad. It was a treat, as well as a learning experience, to here how he could bring such humour off the page (even the credits page) as it happened, to hear a top-class actor and comic work on the fly.

Last but not least, September saw us record Rather Be The Devil, the latest in one of our longest running series, produced for Orion: the Inspector Rebus series. It was steered once more with Tamsin Collison producing, Wolfgang Dienst editing, and James Macpherson reading, as he has since 2000. Working with the Rebus titles always brings back memories for me, as my earliest memory of audiobooks (or ‘books on tape’, as they were then) is listening to my father playing Let It Bleed and Hide And Seek in the car. The world of audio is very different in 2016 compared to 2000, but the responsibility of capturing the best performance and quality possible to attract new listeners to audiobooks, and to retain old ones, is as important as ever.

Chris Beer

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