National Voices

Friday, Jan 25 2013 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: Audiobooks rise or fall on oratory of narrators

By The Bakersfield Californian

From the moment I heard Rita Moreno's sweet voice trill the r's and hit the accented sounds just right in Jose Gautier Benitez's poem "To Puerto Rico (I Return)," I knew I'd made a wise choice in buying Justice Sonia Sotomayor's memoir, "My Beloved World," as an audiobook.

It was a decision I'd wrestled with before learning who the performer would be on this title. But without knowing that it would be a show-biz icon who shares Sotomayor's background as a "New Yorican," I was worried I'd have to read it on paper, while half asleep at the end the day, instead of while wide awake during a run or while making dinner.

The whole thing brought to light the fact that I'm not over the serious bias I have against audiobooks that are read by performers who mangle foreign language passages.

I recently listened to nearly 22 hours of Tom Wolfe's audio version of "Back to Blood," which is set in the bilingual neighborhoods of Miami.

Though I loved the story, and eventually came to love the narrator's performance, I spent much of the first chapters of the book being frustrated every time the actor Lou Diamond Phillips blew a Spanish-language pronunciation that even a 5-year-old native Spanish speaker would be able to articulate flawlessly.

I was annoyed that Hachette Audio, the book's production company, hadn't thought enough of listeners who might be fluent in Spanish to find someone who could really do a good job on all the foreign words.

Great other-language pronunciations are not insignificant details to listeners of audiobooks. My experiences hearing the collected works of Sweden's Stieg Larsson and Lars Kepler or Norway's Jo Nesbo would not have been nearly as exhilarating and edifying had their books not been expertly read by performers who were equally fluent in English as in Swedish and Norwegian.

So key is an audiobook performer's ability to bring a story alive that if he or she sounds inauthentic, it's nearly impossible to finish listening to a book.

One of my favorite authors is Luis Alberto Urrea. I await each of his books like a child counting down to Christmas and I'll never forget how disappointed I was to learn that he did not, as is his custom, read aloud his 2009 novel "Into the Beautiful North."

I bought it anyway with nothing but the best expectations, but the woman who performed it was just so far off base that I couldn't stand hearing her rendition and had to stop listening -- a criticism that Urrea, I later learned, heard often.

That said, I thought I'd gotten over it.

On the whole, Phillips was a tour de force. Sure, he tripped over a few words in Spanish -- and, truth be told, a few in English as well -- but his performance of upward of 10 very different male and female characters speaking in accented English, Cuban-Spanish, Russian and French was stellar.

At the end, I figured that if his French sounded perfect to me -- a non-French speaker -- I should just suck it up and not let a few mispronunciations here and there lessen an otherwise magnificent performance. This same thought buoyed me through a listening of Dennis Lehane's "Live By Night," his follow-up to the 2008 nail-biter, "The Given Day."

The reader, Jim Frangione, did a beautiful job narrating the jaunty cadences of how Irish native-English speakers talked during the Roaring '20s while being very skillful in speaking as the Cuban characters who loom large in the story. He misfired on only one Spanish word and I instantly forgave him for it, patting myself on the back for no longer being hung up on such trivialities.

And then came Sotomayor's memoir.

Readers are walked through the deep thoughts and heart-in-your-throat remembrances of America's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice in flawless, instantly-flipping English and Spanish.

I'm barely into the recording but I just can't deny how very important it is to hear the words of both my native tongues spoken to sweet perfection.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@ washpost.com.

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