One of the appeals of a well-written crime fiction series is that as the series goes on, we get to know the characters, we see them evolve, and we follow their lives. We follow “stories across stories” and so on. But some series are afflicted with a syndrome I thought you should know about (thank you, Maxine at Petrona for alerting me to this!). It’s called the Translated Out of Order (TOOO) syndrome. I think it’s important to be aware of this syndrome, as it affects many series. In fact, any series written in one language and at some point published in another is subject to TOOO. What characterizes TOOO? Well, its primary characteristic is the translation of later books in a series before the earlier books. I’m not a publishing or translation expert, so I honestly can’t say exactly what causes TOOO. My guess is that perceived marketability of, say, the third or fourth novel rather than the first plays a role. So, quite possibly, do factors such as negotiations with publishers in other countries, translators and so on. There are other root causes, too.
What are the symptoms of TOOO? One of them is that readers who don’t read a series in order can miss out on key events. For example, in Andrea Camilleri’s first Salvo Montalbano novel The Shape of Water, Montalbano investigates the death of Silvio Luparello. Luparello’s body is found in a very compromising position, and since he was provincial secretary for his party, local authorities want Montalbano to accept the verdict of natural death. That makes sense, too, because there’s no evidence that Luparello was murdered. Still, Montalbano gets a strong sense that there’s more to this death than a heart attack at a very awkward time. So he begins to ask questions. In the end, he finds out the truth about Luparello’s death. And in this novel, we find out how he meets Swedish-born race car driver Ingrid Sjostrom, who figures prominently in several Montalbano novels. English-speaking readers would miss out on this event if they didn’t have access to Stephen Sartarelli’s excellent translation.
In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), translated into English by Marlaine Delargy, we are introduced to tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson. In this novel, she’s persuaded to return from Stockholm to her home in Kiruna to help a former friend who’s been accused of murdering her brother. Martinsson’s reluctant to make this trip for reasons which this first novel reveals. When she arrives in Kiruna, she gets caught up in the investigation of the murder as she tries to clear her friend’s name. She also undergoes a very traumatic event related to the investigation. That event affects her in several ways that play out in the succeeding novels. But English-speaking readers who didn’t have access to Delargy’s well-done translation would have no way of knowing exactly what happened. The even is alluded to in later novels, but not described.
Another symptom of TOOO is that readers don’t get to see the beginnings of relationships that prove important in later novels. For example, in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals, we are introduced to Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. She’s hired by Amelia Guntlieb to find out the truth about the death of Amelia’s son Harald, who was studying at the university in Reykjavík. Thóra is hired mostly because she’s fluent in German, and the Guntlieb family is from Germany. The Guntliebs send their banker Matthew Reich to Reykjavík to work with Thóra to find out who killed Harald Guntlieb and why. As the novel evolves, Thóra and Matthew develop a relationship that moves from business to friendship and more. By the time the second novel My Soul to Take takes place, the two are an established pair. But if English-speaking readers didn’t have access to Bernard Scudder’s translation, they would miss out on the way that relationship begins and evolves.
In fact, English-speaking fans of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series already have experienced this symptom. The first two novels in this series, Sons of Dust and Silent Kill, have not been translated into English. So those who enjoy this series in that language have to begin with the third novel Jar City. In that novel, Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly inoffensive elderly man named Holberg. There seems to be no motive for the murder until Erlendur and his team dig a little more deeply into Holberg’s past and find out that he was not the “standup good guy” everyone thought. In this novel, we see the camaraderie and working relationship between Erlendur and his team-mates. We also see his troubled relationship with his daughter Eva Lind. There are references, too, to his failed marriage and his regrets about what’s happened to his children. But these relationships are already ongoing. There is a sense that we’ve missed something by not being “in on it” from the beginning, although to his credit, Indriðason has done a more than effective job of giving enough backstory to keep readers deeply engaged.
Another symptom of TOOO is that it’s hard to keep track of events that go on in the major characters’ lives. For example, in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s series, we get to know Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police. In the first Espinosa Novel The Silence of the Rain, Espinosa is assigned to the First Precinct. That precinct is located in an unpleasant part of the city:
“Tuesday wasn’t such a bad day, especially compared to weekends, when the station was packed full of hookers and pickpockets from the port. That was his clientele: hookers, pickpockets, drunks and junkies, the small fry of the port’s underworld. The real crimes, committed in the offices downtown, never reached the First Precinct…”
Partly as a result of his successful investigation in this novel, Espinosa is transferred as a reward to the much more prestigious Twelfth Precinct, which also happens to be located much nearer his home. In December Heat, he’s settled in at the Twelfth and begins his work there. But without Benjamin Moser’s translation, English-speaking readers wouldn’t be able to follow Espinosa’s career and trace the events that happen to him in order.
And although the bulk of this post has been devoted to novels written in other languages and translated into English, let’s not forget that TOOO syndrome can affect English-language books, too. If you consider your favourite English-language series, imagine what would happen if speakers of other languages started them at the second or third novel. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, for instance, are best read in order (although they can be enjoyed otherwise). If one doesn’t read The Black Echo first, for instance, it’s harder to follow the events that lead to The Concrete Blonde which comes a bit later in the series. It’s also easiest to follow Bosch’s career if one reads the novels in order. He begins on the Hollywood Homicide squad, but certainly doesn’t stay there. Events in the different novels move him from one to another spot in and out of the L.A.P.D., and those moves make the most sense if one reads them in order.
So do beware of TOOO. Right now, I know of no cure for it and I’ve read more than one book affected by it. Just thought you ought to know for your own safety ;-). If you’re a writer, do you see TOOO happening with your books? What precautions do you take?
On Another Note…
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