From Audio to Paper: Deciphering Heard Words On The Page

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Alex Acks

Contributing Editor

Alex Acks is a writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. They've written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, and more. Alex lives in Denver with their two furry little bastards, where they twirl their mustache, watch movies, and bike. Twitter: @katsudonburi Website:

“Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word. It means they learned it by reading.” —Unknown

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, because in my recent life I’ve worked jobs that have given me a lot of time to do so. When you’re having to drive an hour and a half to a job site, or are going to spend the next four hours drawing pictures of rocks, that’s prime audiobook territory. And there’s a lot of discussion we could have about what makes for a good audiobook, in my opinion, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I’ve really noticed is just how…weird it is, to go back and read a book you’ve originally listened to on audio. Or maybe jump into the written format of a series when you’ve listened to the first book or two. Of course, the narrator will then influence how the characters sound in my head when they talk. That’s not a big deal. But the part that leaves me lurching is when words I’m seeing in a book, mostly names or random bits of conlang, aren’t spelled the way I’d come to expect from the way the narrator was pronouncing them.

Really, where this staggered me the hardest was when I tried to read the print version of a book in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. A Civil Campaign, to be precise. Without Grover Gardner (the narrator) just telling me, I couldn’t tell immediately who was in a scene. Illyan? Koudelka? Aral? Ekaterin? Who are these people? It’s not that the names didn’t make sense once I really looked at them; it’s that my brain was expecting something else. Couldn’t tell you what. This is no doubt a function of the fact that I don’t speak the languages the names in that series are based on.

And that was nothing compared to how absolutely lost in the weeds I got when I attempted to read the print version of The Goblin Emperor after having listened to the audio many times. In all honesty, I just gave up and went back to the audio.

the fifth seasonIt’s not always the case. I didn’t have any kind of hiccup when I jumped from the audiobook of The Fifth Season to The Obelisk Gate in print. That was a seamless enough transition that when The Stone Sky came out and I wanted to reread the first two books, I spent a wild afternoon tearing my shelves apart and trying to find The Fifth Season, wondering who the heck I’d loaned it to, until I realized…oh yeah. It’s in my audible app. And now I have a giant mess to clean up. But, I figure, the Broken Earth Trilogy is mostly loaded with geology words, and I’ve got a cheaterpants head start on those.

It may just be a function of the way I read, since I tend to subvocalize a lot, and I know that’s not the case for everyone. But it means that some books, I just can’t switch between formats…and some books I only want to listen to on audio because someone else does the hard part of pronunciation for me. And yet I’ve never had a problem going the other way, from print to audio…because mostly, when things sound different from the narrator than they did in my head, I just assume I was pronouncing them wrong in the first place. Because ultimately, my brain just takes the ways I understand how to pronounce things in the languages I know and throws them at the wall to see what sticks…it’s no wonder the results are occasionally less than stellar.