Stay alert and keep foot out of mouth

Through the window of the soundproof booth I see Tina raise her hand. Reels of magnetic tape turn. The hand lowers, pointing at me, and I begin reading a sentence ... for the fourth time. The past hour of this recording session, after a rough day at work, has been exhausting. I read the simple sentence incorrectly , again. Tina waves me to a stop. We take a break.

Just the two of us occupy the recording studio of the state library this evening, but across the nation, in other state libraries, thousands of volunteers are doing what we do - recording books for library patrons who, because of visual or physical impairment, are unable to read for themselves.

I have been narrating a mere five years, but Tina, my monitor on this book, has been associated with communication through sound for most of her life. She trained at Radio Nederland in her native Holland after World War II, gave voice to the Red Queen when Walt Disney's ''Alice in Wonderland'' was dubbed in Dutch, worked in public television after immigrating to America, remastered thousands of recorded books for the Library of Congress, and has monitored the original recording of hundreds more.

Most of the 70 or more volunteers for our state project are, like me, without professional experience - retirees, university students, salesmen, teachers, office workers. They simply love books and people. All donate at least two hours a week to transfer words from page to tape. We work in teams of three. One narrates. Another, the monitor, operates recording equipment and follows text in a second copy of the book. Between weekly sessions, a reviewer listens to what we have recorded, once more comparing spoken to printed text, noting any word mispronounced, inserted, omitted, or slurred - any deviation that requires correction or clarification at the next recording session.

Except for narrators and monitors, we seldom see one another, never meet the thousands of library patrons who hear our work, yet we feel united in spirit. This bond is generated largely by the project director, Carolyn, who sets a standard; she excels at the demanding tasks of matching suitable voices to subject and style of authors, coordinating schedules to make best use of two recording booths, and, somehow, budgeting time to interview and train new volunteers.

A quest for accuracy drives us all as we convert print into sound, and tonight's blunders, ridiculous though they are, were by no means among my most embarrassing. During the recording of an Edmund Crispin novel featuring sophisticated Oxford sleuth Gervase Fen, another monitor and I encountered a single, puzzling word (''Godelpus'') that looked as if it might be the name of Godzilla's cuddly offspring. Neither he nor I had seen the word before, nor could we locate it in 10 dictionaries or umpteen pronunciation guides. It did seem strange that a lorry driver in a British murder mystery should call out the name of some Japanese movie monster, but finally, making a most unsophisticated guess based on the curious spelling, we had this character exclaim: ''Goddle-puss!''

Next week, a reviewer's comment gently chided us: ''I know this driver chap is uncultured, but come on, now, fellas, don't you think even he would know how to say 'God 'elp us' ?'' Oh. Indeed . . . and God bless intelligent reviewers! For any who participate in the recording of books, opportunities abound to become aware of the vagaries of language, when it fails; the marvels of communication, when it succeeds; and a recording team's First Rule: Stay alert and keep foot out of mouth!

Surprises are abundant in this endeavor. One might assume those who work in radio/TV would be naturals at narration, yet their voices and microphone technique may become grating over the three to 20 hours required to hear a book. The spare prose of contemporary authors may look natural in our age of instant communication but be the very dickens to read aloud without the monotonous pacing of ''Run, Spot, Run''; whereas the convoluted sentences - phrases within clauses (within asides) - of, say, Charles Dickens flow from the tongue like song.

Because I deem a book tiresome does not mean some listener will. Personal opinion (''I don't even like wild game hunting, much less a dumb book about it!'') must remain outside the recording booth. The narrator's voice, after all, is merely a vehicle for an author's ''voice,'' and hearing that particular book, why, you'd think I could hardly wait to face another water buffalo in (''ho ... hum'') full stampede.

Reading in an interesting manner what I consider a dull book is not the only challenge. Peter Schickele's tongue-in-cheek ''Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach, 1807-1742?'' - a parody of academic scholarship - was terrific fun to narrate. But how do you ''read'' long sections of illustrations and captions so that a listener understands just enough of the visual element to apprehend the skewed humor lurking where caption and illustration combine? Or suppose you find yourself narrating a novel in which characters have the disconcerting habit of lacing their dialogue with French, Italian, and Dutch - within the same set of quotation marks! - when you speak only English.

With Tina's coaching, I zipped through that polyglot nightmare and breezed headlong into the next English sentence: '' 'And if so, I'll be there,' she said.'' Here, four times, I positively demolished the First Rule with variations of '' 'If and so, I'll be there,' shed see.''

So, rest break over, it's back to the booth to try again. This time, on Tina's hand cue, I finally arrange the ''if,'' ''and,'' and ''she said'' in proper sequence, exactly as they appear in the book spread beneath the microphone in front of me. Tina crosses her eyes in disbelief, and I crack up, laughing. But, with that hurdle cleared, we proceed for another delightful hour without error.

In another month or two of these weekly sessions we'll be finished with this book. Although the process is sometimes tedious, even nerve-racking, sharing the rich and unique experience of books has compensations. When the work is done, we know (''Goddle-puss!'') that we will have given a listener the entertainment, information, pleasure available to those of us who, whenever we want, can hold a book in our hands to see what an author has to say.

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