Audiobooks Have Their Henry Higgins

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Feb 22 19:03:14 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

February 21, 2005
Audiobooks Have Their Henry Higgins

As a researcher at Recorded Books, the audiobook publisher, Paul Topping
hunts for precise pronunciations of foreign expressions, medical maladies
and obscure geographical and biological names. In his quest, he might
consult his scores of reference books, conduct Internet research and
telephone anyone from Alaskan librarians to C.I.A.  officers to Antigua
restaurateurs to the authors themselves. Ultimately Mr. Topping, who works
in the Manhattan studios of the 26-year-old Maryland-based company, writes
the words out phonetically to guide narrators as they record books. He has
been nailing pronunciations for more than two decades, but in the
painstaking process still spends many hours just hammering his thumb.

Sometimes the biggest challenge for Mr. Topping, though, is just keeping a
straight face. During a recent afternoon in the company's studios, for
instance, an audiobook narrator - let him go nameless - entered Mr.
Topping's office holding a list of troublesome words, including "LED," as
in an alarm clock's light-emitting diode. "Do you say" - the actor spelled
the letters out - "L-E-D or led?"

"On this planet we say L-E-D," said Mr. Topping, wearing an expression
that was equal parts amusement and acid-reflux, the expression of a man
who has heard Beijing, bruschetta and Chile mangled too many times. "I
hear some people say led," the narrator offered. "That's linguistic
anarchy," Mr. Topping said.

He's heard worse. "I had a woman ask me how to pronounce OB/GYN," he
reported later. "Someone else asked me how to pronounce TCBY." And did Mr.
Topping laugh at that? "Only on the inside. Actors are touchy, so you
can't laugh at them. Until they leave the room."

Mr. Topping would be the first to tell you, though, that proper
pronunciation is serious business among audiobook publishers, who are
enjoying double-digit sales growth in an otherwise stagnant publishing
industry. When reviewers hear gaffes, they let it rip. "Arab and Jew:
Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land," earned a Pulitzer Prize for David K.
Shipler, but Blackstone Audiobooks' subsequent recording was riddled with
mispronounced Hebrew and Arabic, wrote Daniel J. Siegel in his review in
AudioFile, the industry's standard-bearer. When Blackstone confirmed Mr.
Siegel's assertions, it cast a new narrator and released it again
(Blackstone Audiobooks, unabridged) - to accolades. Perhaps nothing is
trickier than pronouncing words that don't actually exist. For his "Dune"
science-fiction series Frank Herbert developed a language, Chakobsa,
recently revived in a new generation of "Dune" books written by the
author's son, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. When Scott Brick was
cast to narrate "Dune: The Butlerian Jihad" (Audio Renaissance,
unabridged) in that new series, he said that he highlighted 498 made-up
words. While the elder Herbert, who died in 1986, recorded intermittently
in the 1960's and even wrote out some pronunciations, many words had no
phonetic blueprint.

Mr. Brick spent hours on the phone with Brian Herbert. "He broke out his
father's notes and there were a lot of the words that he found
pronunciations for," Mr. Brick said. "The rest we extrapolated." Mr. Brick
deduced that the elder Herbert meant for "every vowel to be pronounced."
In an e-mail message Mr. Brick explained Chakobsa further: "Sietch is not
seech, it is see-aitch, almost like saying the letters C and H; naib is
not nabe it is nah-eeb." In 2003 Mr. Brick's efforts earned an Audie, the
Audiobook Publishers Association's Oscar-equivalent. While most audiobook
companies rely on such yeoman's work from narrators and producers, Mr.
Topping, 43, said he believed that he was the first full-time
pronunciation researcher in the field. (For a year, he has also had a
full-time assistant, Margo Passalaqua.) "There's no specific academic
program to prepare you for this work," Mr. Topping said. "You have to know
at least a dozen modern languages and be comfortable with at least three
dead languages. You have to know popular culture. You have to be a

You also have to be organized. Mr. Topping and Ms. Passalaqua work on
pronunciations for a handful of books simultaneously, staying a few
chapters ahead of all books being produced - a chapter or two per session
- in the company's seven recording booths. Mr. Topping works from
page-referenced lists from narrators, occasionally front-ending research
on difficult projects like the company's recent unabridged recordings of
the entire Bible. (1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles alone required looking up
nearly 2,000 words.) Finally narrators, and the engineers outside the
booth who read silently along with them to check that they are true to
script, receive a list of pronunciations, written out in a phonetic
language of Mr. Topping's invention. He uses 30 characters, a feat of
compression, simplicity and consistency, considering that most
dictionaries use roughly 60 characters, and vary on how they do so. Mr.
Topping's handwritten archived guides for narrators fill a couple of
filing cabinets. If he can recall the title of the American Indian history
for which he found the pronunciation of Kaianerekowa, that's great;
otherwise he is apt to repeat his research for the word. That's why he is
beginning work on what he calls the "megalog." If successful, the megalog
will amass researched words in a searchable database.

Still, there is no substitute for Mr. Topping sounding out some words in
person. In "Research Notes," a monthly pronunciation-sleuthing chronicle
that Mr. Topping sends to Recorded Books' main office, he once explained
how, when he steps into booths to coach narrators on words or dialects, he
harnesses their ability to mimic. "Whenever I am training a narrator to
pronounce foreign words and phrases I use this approach," Mr. Topping
wrote. "Rather than say, 'This is a bilabial voiced fricative,' I will
say, 'Watch my mouth and try to imitate the sound I am saying.' " Mr.
Topping traces his interest in language to his boyhood in Troy, N.Y.,
where Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute drew international academics whose
children were his classmates. In grade school he embarked on a study of
his first two languages: Telugu, used in part of India, and Armenian. In
high school, "I got really busy," he said. "I mastered German, French,
Italian, Latin and Greek. And I had very few friends." After majoring in
French and Portuguese in college, he studied French literature and
phonetics in graduate school, then worked as an audiobook pronunciation
researcher at the American Foundation for the Blind for 11 years before
going to Recorded Books in 1994.

"I'm only fluent in four or five languages, but I can work my way through
30 more; I could order a meal or pronounce anything in those 30," Mr.
Topping said. For the last five years, he has been studying Korean. In
September he entered a Korean singing contest in Flushing Meadows-Corona
Park in Queens. Onstage before 10,000 gathered for a Korean thanksgiving
festival, wearing a traditional hanbok ("a big purple dress," he
explained), Mr. Topping sang all four verses of the Korean national
anthem. He won first prize, a Samsung 20-inch flat-screen television,
which he lugged out of the park with difficulty before hailing a cab.
That's enough glory for Mr. Topping. His efforts go uncredited on
audiobook packages. "A correctly pronounced book is all the credit I
need," he said with mock earnestness.

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