THE NARRATOR’S ACCENT: VOICE AND AUDIOBOOKS
Oh no, I thought, as Dominic Hoffman read the opening lines of Yaa Gyasi‘s Homegoing with what struck me as an African accent. Thanks to the narrator’s accent, I am going to struggle to understand this audiobook. Plus I was miffed to hear a man narrating a book written by a woman and following a matrilineal lineage.
My next audiobook experience evoked similar reactions. In Say Nothing, Belfast actor Matthew Blaney uses a thick brogue to read Patrick Raddon Keefe’s “true story of murder in mystery in Northern Ireland.” This time whether the voice was recognizably male or female didn’t bother me, however: gender seemed less central to the narrative, which involves a woman’s kidnapping, plus backstory about the IRA during the Troubles.
Even so, I became increasingly concerned that the narrator’s accent was limiting my enjoyment of the book. I also wondered how much it was shaping my reading experience. Would the words affect me differently if I had read them to myself?
Something struck me as as phony or artificial about these accents, almost as though I was being played by the audiobook producer.
Accenting the Narrator’s Accent
As so many people told me for last month’s blog, the narrator’s voice is a critical part of the audiobook experience. Speed, style, tone, even pronunciation of trigger words can turn a great book into an intolerable “read.”
Clearly the narrator’s accent plays a role in this. But exactly what role?
For me, one obvious answer is that it made it harder for me to understand–at least initially. With both Homegoing and Say Nothing, the listening got easier over time. Far into a book, an unfamiliar pronunciation might still pull me out of the action. Did he just say “pyre’ or “power”? Was that “phony” or “funny”–that kind of thing.
But over time I generally settled into the accents, even if I had to let a few stray words or phrases go.
Still, I had to wonder: Did a regional accent necessarily enhance the audiobook experience? Clearly some audiobook producers thought it did. But would the author agree? The reader? And who should make that determination?
Shaping the Reading Experience
One thing I knew: the narrator’s accent matters to me–and certainly shapes my “reading” experience. Some of this shaping may help me get in the “mood.” But it can also annoy me.
When I read books to myself, the voice–the pace, the pronunciation, the tone–reading the words is my own. And, true, that voice is not necessarily that of the author, in accent, gender, or anything else. But my experience of the book is quite different than it is listening to an audiobook, regardless, and much more about me.
Is that a bad thing?
I couldn’t help but wonder if the narrator’s accent in any audiobook enhances the reading or constrains it? Should the narrator’s accent (and sound) mimic or even reflect the author’s? The region being depicted? Or should it approximate a neutral English accent in English-language audiobooks?
What does a neutral accent even mean, given that every reader/listener has a different one? Or should a narrator’s voice just be clear and engaging, no matter what or who the author, region, or reader?
Choosing the Narrator’s Accent
We all know that audiobook narrators may reflect marketing considerations more than anything. A popular actor–or even a capable one–may matter more than accent or gender. Marketing considerations may also matter more than creating the right atmosphere.
Actors often come into play when it comes to a narrator’s accent–but outside of the audiobook setting the idea is generally to match or mimic, not reinvent. In fact, as I learned in Say Nothing, choosing the right voice turned out to be critical from 1988-94 when the British government banned Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams from speaking on tv and radio. He could appear visually, but, bizarrely, his voice had to be dubbed.
The voice of choice was often a prominent actor. In one ironic case it was an actor closely connected to the IRA. In this case, however, the idea was the get the narrator’s accent to match that of the actual speaker as closely as possible. The dubbed voice often took on the same brogue as Adams’ and was often indistinguishable from his voice.
Clearly matching the narrator’s voice to the author’s is not always the case for audiobooks.
Whose Voice is it Anyway?
You might argue that book like Say Nothing is rightly heard in brogue if that’s how the author spoke. Then readers would hear the words spoken the way the author wrote them.
But Keefe grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts and has an elite educational pedigree including a Yale law degree and M,Phil from Cambridge. I doubt very much he would read–or wrote–those words with the sound I heard from the narrator.
Perhaps more to the point, I would not have heard the words the same way had I read rather than listened to Say Nothing or Homegoing. I don’t have any idea how Yaa Gyasi speaks. But I do know if I had read the book instead of listened to it, the narrator’s accent would differ. So would my experience of the book.
As it does so often, the answer may come down to your view of the author’s role vs the reader’s–or, in this case, the audiobook narrator’s.
What Do You Think?
If a book is about Northern Ireland, should the narrator have an Northern Irish accent? If a book is written by a woman, or a woman’s story, should the narrator’s voice be female?
Is a regional accent helpful in creating atmosphere? Or does it restrict your imagination? Does it pull you out of the story because you are struggling to understand the words? Or does it bring a story to life?
Please let me know what you think via the comments section below, the contact form on my website, my Twitter account (@terraziporyn), or the Late Last Night Books Facebook page. I’ll share the results in next month’s blog!
TERRA ZIPORYN is an award-winning novelist, playwright, and science writer whose numerous popular health and medical publications include The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health, Nameless Diseases, and Alternative Medicine for Dummies. Her novels include Do Not Go Gentle, The Bliss of Solitude, and Time’s Fool, which in 2008 was awarded first prize for historical fiction by the Maryland Writers Association. Terra has participated in both the Bread Loaf Writers Conference and the Old Chatham Writers Conference and for many years was a member of Theatre Building Chicago’s Writers Workshop (New Tuners). A former associate editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), she has a PhD in the history of science and medicine from the University of Chicago and a BA in both history and biology from Yale University, where she also studied playwriting with Ted Tally. Her latest novel, Permanent Makeup, is available in paperback and as a Kindle Select Book.
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