Saturday, July 13, 2019

Across the rooftops of Blois

Back in the ancient times when recorded books were a novelty and a luxury, I used to be a volunteer reader for Recordings for the Blind. They had planned to use me on math textbooks but when they discovered that I could actually pronounce French and German titles in footnotes and bibliographies, and could even sound confident about it, I got pulled around all over the office to pinch-hit for the monolingual readers who had been suffering and spelling out all those funny foreign words in the fine print. They actually gave me way too much credit. I could make a stab at Italian or Dutch names, but when someone shoved a reference to a Polish book at me, I balked. "I don't have the faintest idea how to read Polish. You'll just have to spell it."
"We will," the reader said, "but please... if you could just say it too... You sound so nice and confident when you speak foreign languages!"
Ah, yes. Nothing like a smattering of half a dozen languages and an apprenticeship at my grandfather's poker games to develop that bluffing ability.
It was with echoes of those days of linguistic scrambling that I put aside Dr. Thorne and turned to the second of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series, Queens' Play, wondering with some sympathy how the reader was going to deal with the plethora of French names and phrases in that book. (Yes, I'm still feeling sufficiently under the weather to spend a lot of time lying down and listening to audiobooks. And from motives of economy, I'm drawn to books that are either free or very long.)
Now, partway through -- I just finished the chase across the rooftops of Blois last night -- I'm wondering more about some surprising pronunciations. About, oh, eighty percent of the French sounds just fine to me, but the other twenty percent grates on my ear and interferes with the project of listening until I fall asleep.
It could be that English conventions for pronouncing sixteenth-century French names are different from American ones (I've certainly been tempted to accuse the reader of speaking the French of Stratford atte Bowe), or it could be that everybody knows these names were pronounced differently in the sixteenth century and the reader is just being nit-pickingly precise. But I doubt both these explanations.
The spelling of Aubigny and Enghien support a palatalized pronunciation that must surely have occurred earlier rather than only coming into use later -- I mean, one could argue that in modern French one says AU-BI-NEE and that the pronunciation AU-BI-NYEE is old-fashioned. But I just checked online pronunciation guides for these names and the palatalization is clearly still there.
As for the French version of hide-and-seek, I utterly abominate and repudiate the suggestion that cache-cache should be pronounced CASH-AY CASH-AY.
My best guess is that there are simply too damned many French names and phrases in the book, that whatever the reader was paid wasn't enough to make it worth while looking up every single one, that he counted on a general understanding of French pronunciation and it occasionally failed him. Heaven knows, after the way I blithely sailed through Russian and Swedish footnotes back in the day, I don't have much room to be critical. I do wonder, though. Is the occasional stumble par for the course with audiobooks? Or is it just that this particular book is so demanding of the reader?
And if the same guy records the subsequent books in the Lymond series, how is he going to manage when our hero goes to Malta? Istanbul? Moscow?

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