JBI Studios' Blog on Voice-Over, Dubbing, and Multimedia Localization.

How to Avoid the 3 Most Common Voice-Over Pronunciation Issues

What’s the number one cause of problems for foreign-language voice-over projects? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that it’s pronunciation errors. Why? Because just one mistake in your final audio – on anything from a name or address, website, phone number, or even brand name – can require a pick-up recording, and pick-ups delay product releases and over-extend budgets. So what can you do? For starters, avoid the three most common pronunciation errors.

This post will list the 3 common pronunciation errors that localization professionals must avoid – and provide tips for how to do exactly that.

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Pronunciation is harder in a voiceover translation context

There are many reasons why pronunciation isn’t as much of an issue for English-language recordings, especially when they’re the source recordings for a suite of translations. For starters, the group producing the recording is usually an internal marketing or e-Learning division within a corporation – both of these entities are full of people who can guide the pronunciation of any special terms, since they’re familiar with the script content. Or, if an outside group records the voiceover, the client will usually sit in on the sessions and give real-time pronunciation instructions.

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But there’s another reason – that pronunciation is relatively simple for words that are native to a specific language, even when it comes to difficult terms. You may not know how to say pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis, which just happens to be the longest word in the English language. However, you can look up the pronunciation in an English-language dictionary, or even check out some audio reference files online (though make sure they’re from a trusted source). Sure, you’ll have to do some work, possibly even a lot of work, but ultimately you’ll get a definitive answer to your pronunciation question.

But imagine you see the wordコカコーラin the middle of an English-language VO script, or even Кока-Кола – would you know how to pronounce those words? Probably not, unless you know Japanese or Russian, respectively. You may not even know how to start looking up the pronunciations, since it would require typing those terms into a search engine or looking them up in a dictionary. Both are the translations of Coca-Cola into the respective languages, and you may have guessed it from the Russian, since the letters look somewhat akin to the Latin ones. Needless to say, this isn’t something that most English-speakers have to do on a regular basis.

However, this is exactly the situation that foreign-language VO artists are in quite often, especially when voicing corporate, marketing or e-Learning content that’s been translated from English. Why? Because many of the source English terms – including brands, sales terms, names, US addresses, and various other English-language words – remain as English terms in these kinds of VO scripts. If you’re recording a Chinese voice translation project, there’s a good chance that your native-speaker VO artist won’t speak English, let alone read Latin characters. Even worse if you’re recording an Arabic voice over services session, since native talents in that language read text from right to left.

You get the idea – a lot of the most common pronunciation problems come from this particular quality in translated scripts. This includes the three most common ones, with which we’ll deal next.

Note: Because we’ll be focusing on projects that translate from English into a target language, our examples below will assume English-speaking clients and content going into a non-English target language. However, most of the examples could apply to different source/target pairs as well.

With that out of the way, here they are – the three most common pronunciation issues, and ways to ensure they don’t happen in your recordings.

1. English-language terms not pronounced correctly.

That’s right – this is the overall biggest pronunciation issue, as you might expect from the introduction. So how do you deal with it? In various ways:

  • Provide audio reference files: If you have any names, addresses, jargon, brands – or anything else in the script that will remain in English – ask a native English speaker to make a recording of them to use as reference in the studio. More on that in our previous post, 3 Tips to Create a Pronunciation Audio Reference File for Voice Over.
  • Transliterate terms whenever it’s possible: If it’s possible or commonly accepted in the target language, and you have client buy-in, transliterate the terms into that language. Or, provide a transliteration as a guideline along with the audio reference files, just to help your VO talent. And remember that some of the more common terms – like Coca-Cola – are often transliterated.
  • Be thorough with your Pronunciation Guide: We provide one to our clients for every single project. Make sure that you review it thoroughly, and take the time to compile the special terms – there’s quite a bit in that document, but it’s all useful.

Remember also that you’re not looking for perfect pronunciation of the English-language terms – the ideal is to get solid, accurate pronunciation, but with a native target-language accent. This means that the target-language pronunciation may not sound all that great to an English-speaker. Remember that the key is to make sure term pronunciations are accurate (i.e., the terms are generally recognizable), and more importantly, that they sound good to a native speaker. Which leads to our next issue...

2. English-language terms sound too good.

Yup – this is a big problem as well. Remember that your target audience will have trouble with terms that are pronounced in “perfect English.” They want to hear the terms with a natural, local accent.

But how do you get that perfect balance of accurate pronunciation that sounds good to a native ear? With a native-speaker voiceover director – this is one of the instances in which they’re really critical to a voice over production. Because directors are usually the bridge between English-speaking clients and talents who speak little English (or none at all), they are generally the one person that can help the talents find that perfect balance. In general, it’s a good rule of thumb to trust them in this particular regard – especially if you’re localizing into a language of which you’re not a native speaker.

3. Phone numbers, websites, and other “data” content.

Many people ignore these elements, in part because they’re not an issue in documents. But when they have to be spoken, they can be a real problem. The Pronunciation Guide provided with JBI Studios has standard processes for these kinds of “terms” in a script, and they’re good for most instances in which they occur, but it’s still good to review them in your script before recording. Think to yourself: How do you want your company’s website said in different locales? Do you want it said in English? Or spelled out for non-native speakers? Do different customers in different locales do it differently? How about codes, or regulations? Do your in-country employees have a certain way of saying them, or use particular jargon? How do you want phone numbers said? Again, is there a regional standard for them?

The key is to be aware – just take some time to think about these sorts of terms in your script.

Also…

If you want more information on pronunciation, check out our previous post, 3 Voiceover Pronunciation Tips to Save Time and Money.

And, if you’re considering text-to-speech as a voiceover option (and you should – it’s a very rapid and cost-effective option), remember that pronunciation for TTS has slightly different requirements, as outlined in our previous post, 3 Pronunciation Musts for Text-to-Speech Voice Over Recordings.

The best tip of all – get a director and do a thorough QA

We touched on how important a native-speaker VO director is to avoid dreaded pick-up recordings by catching pronunciation issues, but they also keep sessions on time and on budget, and they improve the quality of any recording. Same with making sure that recordings go through a rigorous quality assurance check – again, with a native-speaker QA reviewer. In fact, the dialogue between these two VO professionals is often crucial to making sure that all elements in the recording are pronounced correctly. JBI Studios includes both in every localization project, as they’re crucial to ensuring the high quality, native fluency, and accuracy of a voice localization project.

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