Why Are Audiobooks So Damn Hard to Understand? (Part 3)

Since I wrote Part 2, I’ve figured out one reason ‘reading voice’ is so hard to follow. Ordinary speech has either a consistent volume/energy level, or elevated volume/energy on the most important words. Raising the volume/energy for certain words is like using boldface. Making the volume/energy highest at the beginning of the sentence and tapering off towards the end tells the listener that the beginning is especially important, and the end is unimportant. If the first words are not actually the most important, it throws off the listener. It’s like putting the first three words, and only the first three words, in boldface. Would you want to read a long text like this?

High-quality machine voices are easier for me to follow than professional audiobook narrators. Why? They don’t form a personal connection with the text. They don’t form a personal connection with anything.

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Why Are Audiobooks So Damn Hard to Understand? (Part 2)

Continued from part 1.

Two key ideas from Elaine Clark’s There’s Money Where Your Mouth Is are that a) voiceover artists (including audiobook narrators) must have a personal and emotional connection with the message so that it sounds real and spontaneous and b) they must empower the listener through suggestion rather than demand so that the listener feels the message conveys the listener’s idea rather than the narrator’s idea. Otherwise, the message will be difficult for the listener to absorb.

This explains why so, so much audiobook narration is difficult to follow.

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Why Are Audiobooks So Damn Hard to Understand? (Part 1)

When I listened to a roundtable discussion among professional audiobook narrators, I had no trouble understanding them. Then they put on an audiobook performance. I no longer understood what they said. This is a problem I have with audiobooks.

I was working on a task with my hands. Generally, I can listen to podcasts and talking-heads-videos-without-much-visual-content while working with my hands and understand everything. Audiobooks… not so much. Yes, when I don’t move my hands and pay full attention to audiobooks, I understand them, but if my attention must be undivided, I’d rather read a book in print. Freeing my hands and eyes to do things is the only advantage audio content has over reading, at least for me.

Even though I started learning Mandarin as an adult, I can listen to a Mandarin language talk show like 锵锵三人行 while doing simple/mindless tasks and still follow what they are saying. (I can’t do complicated tasks with my hands and follow 锵锵三人行). Even though English is my native language, I often can’t even do simple tasks and understand the professional audiobook narrator at the same time. How the heck is it harder to understand something in my native language than something in a non-native language?

(Yes, Mandarin language audiobooks also require my undivided attention, but that’s to be expected since Mandarin isn’t my native language.)

Why is narration by professionals so hard to understand? Shouldn’t professional narrators be as easy to understand as a mediocre amateur podcaster? Or is it just me?

This is the question I investigated.

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Young Fujianese Woman Excels at Daoist Magic, Swears Sisterhood with Other Women, Saves a Kingdom, and Vanquishes Fiends: a Review of The Lady of Linshui Pacifies Demons

I dimly recall encountering shrines dedicated to the Lady of Linshui when I lived in Taiwan, but I never paid them much mind. The many temples dedicated to Guanyin and Mazu were much more conspicuous.

Mazu got my attention. She’s one of the most popular deities in Taiwan (and San Francisco – she has two temples in this city, including the city’s oldest continuously operating place of worship dedicated to a non-Abrahamic deity). She’s also a prominent female role model who became so good at Daoist magic that she became a goddess. One book about Taiwan compares her to Hermione Granger. Mazu overshadows the folk religion of the South China Sea region so much that I didn’t notice that Lady of Linshui was also a young prodigy of Daoist magic who turned into a goddess… until I read the newly published English translation of The Lady of Linshui Pacifies Demons (臨水平妖傳).

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Clueless English-Speakers Turn ‘Wuxia’ into a Vampire That Sparkles in Sunlight

The purpose of fiction genres is to help readers to find the stories they want. For example, I like space operas more than murder mysteries. When I’m given a choice between a space opera and a murder mystery, I will choose the space opera without hesitation. If a story is both a murder mystery and a space opera, such as Cetaganda by Lois McMaster Bujold, um, maybe. But if the ‘space opera’ turns out to be a murder mystery set in Virginia in 1965, I’m going to be pissed.

Fictional genres have expectations that are well known to their readers, such as the ‘central love story’ and ‘happily ever after/happily for now’ criteria for ‘romance’ stories. If a ‘romance’ story has a tragic ending, and it’s not a subgenre like ‘tragic romance,’ readers will feel cheated. By contrast, a ‘soap opera’ can put a romantic relationship at the center of the story without an expectation of a happy ending. The key genre expectation of ‘memoirs’ is that the story is true, the key genre expectation of political satire is that it will make fun of politics in a dry way, etc.

Back when this blog started talking about wuxia, the term ‘wuxia’ was pretty much only used by English speakers who had some familiarity with the wuxia classics and thus at least a vague sense of the genre expectations. In intervening years, the term ‘wuxia’ has sprouted among English-speakers in a bad game of telephone where the original understanding of the genre has been garbled.

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I Love Wuxia and Cultivation Novels, So Why Do So Many Chinese-Inspired Fantasy Novels Written in English Turn Me Off?

Why am I still into wuxia ten years after it first sucked me in? What do I find so appealing about wuxia and, to a lesser degree, xianxia/xuanhuan? And why can’t I find it in original English-language works?

This year, I’ve been reading a lot of Chinese-inspired fantasy novels originally written in English. I’ve wondered if any of these novels capture the qualities which attract me to wuxia/xianxia/xuanhuan. The answer is no.

A few years back, I commented that The Grace of Kings is firmly western fantasy (and Ken Liu says the same). I still see it that way. That is despite the fact that it pulls much more from Chinese language literary traditions than most of the Chinese-inspired fantasy I’ve been reading in English. R.F. Kuang also asserts that her novels belong to the ‘western fantasy’ tradition, and she’s another novelist who pulls more from Chinese history/culture/literature than most of the Chinese-inspired-fantasy-in-English writers.

What am I looking for? Not western fantasy. When I was an adolescent, I read a ton of western fantasy, but at some point, I split ways with the genre. Nowadays, when I see ads for fantasy novels, my default reaction is boredom. That surprises me, to be honest.

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Do You Know How Patronizing ‘The First Time a Woman Translates Homer Is a Big Deal’ Sounds?

On a podcast, I heard a translator talk about translating from a ‘post-colonialist/de-colonised’ stance. He said:

To readers who question whether that sort of thing is important… well, it actually is. As folks probably remember, it’s a big deal when Homer is translated for the first time by a woman translator into English… it’s a big deal, because depending on the political approach, and the stance as an interpreter which the translator brings to the text, lots of things which seem to be unquestionable or assumed to be true – are changed.

You’re a woman who has read Homer in Ancient Greek. Surely this makes you feel included?

Wrong. It alienates me.

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What’s Missing from the Controversy over Who Translates Amanda Gorman into Dutch?

What’s missing from the controversy over who translates Amanda Gorman’s poetry into Dutch?


Okay, now that I have the answer, I’m leaving without reading the rest of this post.

Suit yourself.

You don’t care?

I can’t force you to read the rest of this blog post.

Fine, I’m curious enough to keep reading. What are we talking about? Continue reading

Someone Put Japanese Names in the China-Coded Fantasy Fiction I’m Reading. Why Am I Surprised? (not a rhetorical question)

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of anglophone (i.e. originally written in English) fantasy fiction set in pseudo-China. The prevalence of Japanese-sounding names and obvious analogues for Japan strikes me.

The first question is: why do so many anglophone fantasy writers put (pseudo-)Japanese in their (pseudo-)China?The second question is: why do I find this surprising?

Since I am a thousand times better at reading my mind than reading other people’s minds, I’ll start with the second question.

Before I learned Mandarin, I read a few fantasy novels in China-coded setting (such as Dragon of the Lost Sea by Laurence Yep). However, the overwhelming majority of speculative fiction I’ve read with any kind of Chinese setting has been wuxia, xianxia, xuanhuan, and qihuan originally written in Chinese. Since ‘wuxia, xianxia, xuanhuan, and qihuan’ is a mouthful, I’m just going to lump them all under ‘fantastical fiction’. Thus, in my mind, fantastical fiction written in Chinese sets the standard for what I expect for a fantasy story set in (pseudo-)China.

Guess what: references to Japan, Japanese people, or recognizable analogues are rare in what is written in Chinese. Continue reading

Review of The Heretic Peacekeeper by Jeremy Bai

Book cover of The Heretic Peacekeeper by Jeremy Bai

Wang Fan, a peacekeeper in the Third Earth, wants to protect the people from crooks. The worst crooks, he believes, are evil cultivators. Protecting the public becomes rather difficult when-

Hold on, this book has not even been published yet. How come you’ve read it?

I have an advanced readers’ copy. (UPDATE: the book has been published).

So you’re going to do that song and dance about how you got a free copy in exchange for an honest review?



It’s not true. I did not get a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

You got a free copy in exchange for a dishonest review?

No, I did not get a copy in exchange for a review at all. I am under no obligation to review this book. Continue reading