I was recently lucky enough to record Alex y Robert (by Wena Poon) as a Book at Bedtime for the BBC. It’s a wonderful book – but it threw up a problem that comes up from time to time for narrators.
The heroine is an American girl, fluent in Spanish, who wants to be a bullfighter, like her grandfather. She goes to Spain and fulfils her dream.
So far so good! The story is written in third person narrative and the character of Alex was no problem – but once she got to Spain and met Roberto and lots of other Spanish characters, I had a bit of a stumble. When Alex is in Spain, she is speaking Spanish, as are the other characters. But it is written in English. And occasionally the Spanish characters break into English. What to do? Accent? No accent? No accent for the Spanish characters when they’re speaking Spanish, but give them an accent when they’re speaking English? Give nobody accents? Give everybody accents? It’s a minefield!
Ultimately I think it’s about making things as clear as possible for the listener. So although it might be very clever to switch back and forth from accented to unaccented, depending on what language the character was supposed to be speaking, it would be incredibly confusing for the listener.
Therefore my policy is to give a character one voice and one accent – an accent that is the same, no matter what language they’re speaking.
In the case of Alex y Robert, that could’ve meant giving the Spanish characters no accent – or perhaps more accurately, to give them an American accent like mine. But that didn’t seem right either.
Part of the charm of the story is this very American girl finding herself in a very different world with an ancient tradition very different from anything in her world. In order to convey that sense of ‘otherness,’ I chose to give the Spanish characters Spanish accents – even when they were supposed to be speaking their own language.
What do you think? I’d love to know how other narrators handle this problem! - LK