Listening in

24 April 2013

 Three of my books are being made into audiobooks. It’s being done for Audible, the Amazon-owned company that’s currently recording a vast number of books for its burgeoning download shop. Alongside the good news was a note of alarm and a last-minute call for help with pronouncing the trickier names.

 My books are set in Iceland and a recurring theme of the feedback is that characters’ names are difficult. Sorry, there’s not much I can do. The simple fact is that Icelanders have names that aren’t familiar to us and I’ve already taken pains to keep them as straightforward when they could have been so much more complex. Icelandic even has letters that our anglophone alphabet doesn’t recognise, so I took a decision to leave out names that include the fiendish letter ‘ð’, a hard th as in ‘bathe’ that is generally transliterated with a simple d that doesn’t do it justice. So, no Guðni, no Iðunn, no Hörður, no Guðríður, and so on. That’s around a third of potential names ruled out right away.

It’s one of the penalties of setting fiction in an exotic, albeit chilly, location. People’s names and place names are inevitably unfamiliar and it has to be accepted that Icelanders aren’t called Jim and Sally. I’d hope readers will make up their own minds about how the names sound, as just as I would with something set in Japan or Egypt, plus a little extra care helps to indicate early on if a character is male or female when it’s not obvious from the name.

 In the soundproof booth with reader Mel Hudson, who took Hróbjartur Bjarnthórsson in her stride, but struggled with Hafnarfjörður.

On the page is one thing. But read out loud is another matter, and this is where an element of panic set in. Producer Nicky Grischotti from Red Apple Creative, the company given the job of producing the recordings, had already done plenty of homework, including getting a few pieces of confusing advice. Then a long list of problem words dropped into my inbox and I had to write a rapid line of explanation for each, trying to cram into one long email a rapid tutorial on how to pronounce words in one of Europe’s more obscure languages.

Yes, an initial H is sometimes pronounced as a K, but not always. Hrólfur has an initial Hr sound, but Hverfisgata (the Reykjavík street where the central police station is to be found, which appears frequently) has the K sound – Kverfisgata. The awkward ð sound also proved a headache. It occurs in plenty of place names that I couldn’t avoid, so that meant going through each one to make sure they were right. Then there’s the double-l that’s pronounced ‘tl’ and the double-n that becomes a subtle ‘tn’ sound, and the ‘au’ that’s ‘oy’ (similar to ‘oeil’ n French, as Mel the reader pointed out) and not an ‘ow’ sound that a German ‘au’ would make.

It was all a little rushed as Red Apple started recording, starting with Chilled to the Bone, the newly-published third in the series. There was an hour-long phone call with reader Melanie Hudson as we went through the names, including the deliberately awkwardly-named villain Hróbjartur Bjarnthórsson, which she handled with aplomb. A few other names were less easy. The Reykjavík suburb of Hafnarfjörður proved a headache, as did Sjöfn, the name of a minor female character. A few more queries followed by email later in the day and two days later it was all done.

 Before Mel and Nicky started the next book, Frozen Out, there was another long talk on the phone and on the first day of recording I was able to get to London and spend an hour listening in.

It jarred initially to hear my words in someone else’s voice, although Mel did a fine job during the hour I listened in, taking the strange Icelandic terms in her stride. She explained that there’s a fine line that has to be drawn between taking the full pronunciation so far that it sounds discordant dropped into an English sentence, as in ‘Reykjaviek,’ the R rolled like a revving motorbike, and placing so little emphasis on the names of people and places that they become too anglicised, as in the ‘Rekavik’ that Iceland’s capital becomes in a BBC report.

It was a fascinating to see how painstaking the process is, with Nicky recording and following the reading while marking errors and re-takes on her script, issuing crisp instructions and asking for alternate versions of odd sentences over the intercom, all with just the top of Mel’s head visible as she sat hidden in a recording booth behind a thick curtain and a double set of soundproof doors. Chilled to the Bone turned out to be nine hours. Frozen Out was looking to be between ten and eleven of raw recording, with Nicky expecting to lose 8-10% in the editing process. The middle book of the three is now about to be read, so there’ll be another long talk with Mel to get the remaining names straight before the reading starts.

It’s been a remarkably rewarding process and unusual for a writer to have input into an audiobook, as normally we seem to find out about these things afterwards. When a US company produced an audio version of one of my book a few years ago, the first I knew of it was when my daughter found it on Amazon and I’ve never heard it – so it was a pleasant surprise to be asked to help with the Audible version.

What I hadn’t been prepared for was the range of voices the characters are given to differentiate them in spoken dialogue. Gunnhildur, my rotund heroine, has a fairly neutral London tone. Her bloke, Steini has something of a Liverpool twang, although a long way short of Alexei Sayle. Sigurjóna, the scruple-free villainess in Frozen Out sounds delightfully posh until a screech of rage surfaces. One of the police characters, Helgi, has a trace of a Welsh lilt; all of which is a touch incongruous as Iceland, with a population smaller than Croydon’s, has virtually no regional accents.

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