Lola Rogers on “The Colonel’s Wife” by Rosa Liksom [The Book That Never Was, Pt. 1]
The Colonel’s Wife by Rosa Liksom, translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (Graywolf Press)
BookMarks Reviews: Five total—Four Positive, One Mixed
Number of Finnish Works of Fiction Published in Translation from 2008-2019: 65 (5.42/year)
Number of Those Translations Written by Women: 40 of the books were authored by women, 21 were translated by women.
Other Translations of Liksom’s Work: Dark Paradise (2006), Compartment No. 6 (2016), One Night Stands (1993)
At the end of her life, an unrepentant member of the White Guard and Nazi Party—the Colonel’s wife of the title—reflects on her life with unadulterated honesty, providing a very complicated picture of life in Finland in the time around World War II. She recounts her father’s involvement with the Colonel, and how he became a major presence in her life when she was a mere four years old. After the passing of her father, he takes over that role, until she’s old enough for him to marry.
A horrific monster of a man, the Colonel is dedicated to the Nazi Party and the purity of Finland, helping bring his young wife—who eventually is in charge of the “prison camps” in Finland—into the fold. He rapes, beats his wife, kills their unborn child. Yet, she remains loyal to him for far too long before escaping . . . To a remote village where she immediately seduces a fourteen-year-old boy and makes him her husband.
This novel is morally complicated, with a main character who is by turns sympathetic (she is abused by a system she’s not even aware of), charming (the joy with which she helps her young, second husband find an age-appropriate wife), and a monster (“My father made me a daughter of the White Guard. The Colonel made me a Nazi. And I’m not ashamed of either one.”).
Structured with a frame story depicting the day of her death, the book progresses in mostly chronological order, as if written by the Colonel’s Wife herself. The prose is direct, with a hint of ruralness to it, reflected in the grammatical errors and her admissions to neither being educated nor well-read—despite becoming a successful novelist in her later years. The voice is both earnest—even when dealing with the “evil” things she did—and textured with idiomatic phrases and word choices.
There are a number of historical references in here that might require some research and/or explanation for those of us unfamiliar with Finland’s role in World War II. The three wars that they fought in around this time—the Winter War (Finland vs. Russia just before WWII), Continuation War (Finland + German Nazis vs. Russia during WWII), and the Lapland War (Russia + Finland vs. Germans in Lapland following WWII)—are unlikely to be part of most high school world history textbooks. But for a country geographically stuck between two warring ideologies—Fascism and Communism—they were a valuable territory, and one that didn’t always pick a lane.
The novel resonates in 2020 as nationalism is back on the rise—and at odds with a twenty-first century version of “socialism”—and many of the socio-cultural structures that molded the Colonel’s Wife are still in place. (Namely, The Patriarchy.) It can also be read as a rebuke of “cancel culture” by articulating the gray space within which the Colonel’s Wife resides.
For this book to have its intended impact though, it needs to be read in full and reflected upon. Anyone immediately repulsed by the idea of a Nazi main character is unlikely to get past the first third, and the fact that she goes from being extremely sympathetic when she finally escapes her abusive husband into being a pedophile is . . . off-putting to some. The narrative tricks used to make this compelling and the ways in which Liksom plays with the impact of history on a singular human is impressive and startling.
Generally positive. Uncomfortable in the sense that they really felt for the main character but couldn’t explain why or how that happened. And they all loved talking to Lola.
Chad W. Post: I think a good place to start would be if you told us how you got into translating, and how your career has developed over the past few years.
Lola Rogers: Well, I actually got interested in Finnish language when I majored in linguistics. That’s how I became interested in the language—not knowing very much about the culture. I just found the language itself interesting. The grammatical system. I had studied Spanish for many years and as a linguistics major we were required to study a language outside of our native language family. And Finnish isn’t an Indo-European language. So that was one of the options and I was already interested in the language, so I went for it. And then, of course, as soon as I started studying it I realized that it was going to take me years to learn, you know, like ten times as long as it took me to learn Spanish. But I ended up studying it! Well, I mean I’m still studying it after twenty years. So I did that, studying the language off and on, both at the university and on my own. And eventually started just translating kind of for fun. For instance, I had, like, bands I really liked and would translate the lyrics for my friends, things like that.
CWP: I want to assume these were Finnish death metal lyrics?
LR: No . . . Actually, I’m into Finnish folk metal. Sort of neo folk metal. Anyway, at the time there wasn’t an official translation program at the University of Washington where I studied. Which was kind of good actually because I ended up designing what I wanted to do and was able to sort of craft my own master’s degree. Afterwards, I went to Finland, to work as a translation intern at the Finnish Literature Exchange, also known as FILI, which is a part of the Ministry of Education and Culture. I was there for seven months and the best thing was meeting almost all of the publishers and literary agents in Finland at the time. So yeah. At that time, there was a real shortage of Finnish translators. That’s why FILI was so active in training them. So to my great surprise, as soon as I graduated, I had so much work that I’ve worked as a translator full-time ever since.
CWP: Wow. That’s amazing. What was the first book you translated?
LR: It was Purge by Sofi Okasaen (Grove Press, 2010) which was a stroke of luck. To work on such a well-known book for your first translation really helped me in Finland—and even in English, since people looking for a Finnish translator found me, thanks to the success of that book.
There are two things about Lola’s origin story that stand out to me: The non-haphazard haphazardness of how she fell into being a translator, and the value in having your first published translation be a pretty successful book published by a relatively large press.
I think the first point will play itself out over the rest of this book. Translators tend to end up being translators for a variety of “random” reasons.
Although, are they actually “random” Or even “haphazard”? That would assume there’s a normalized path to becoming a translator, which, for better or worse, just doesn’t exist. It kind of can’t. Sure, nowadays you can get a degree in literary translation—either to become a practitioner or an academic-theorist, but most of these programs are new, and not the pathway for the translators who paved the way for the modern era—but almost everyone just “falls into” translation. It might be because you were born into a multilingual family and grew up with translation as your natural state of being. Maybe you fell in love with someone from another country. You wanted to share new anime with your friends and then found out this was a profession. There are a million pathways; none of these are standardized.
Which is why actively deciding to study a language for your MA because it’s interesting feels less random than most translators I’ve talked to! But, at the same time, the idea of almost picking a language to study at random—why not study Maori? or Latvian? or Quebecois?—feels very apropos the core concept of literature in translation.
But it’s the second point that interests me: How much does it matter that the first book you translate sells well? Why do publishers decide to publish Book X instead of Book Y? And why do they have Translator G translate it instead of Translator K? What percentage of this decision is based on quality? On the translator’s reputation? On how much they’ll cost (or won’t)? On how well the translator’s other books sold?
Tim Parks got in a lot of heat about the “translation community” about an article he wrote in which he tried to separate the success of a particular translation from the skill of the translator.
Before going on, I feel like I should define “translation community.” This is an admittedly amorphous group of maybe 300 people who have a normal amount of groupthink and tend to take stands on social media platforms about what’s “wrong” or “unfair.” The Venn Diagram between their influence on culture and general readers buying books in translation is undefined and circumspect. The “translation community” might feel a particular review was incredibly biased and unfair using contemporary ideas in translation theory, and they might express this as publicly as they can. The average reader is unlikely to hear, much less be mentally troubled by these allegations.
Anyway, Parks called bullshit on elevating certain translators based on the sales of the translated book instead of the skill behind the translation; the translation community said that he was a dick, since his observation/critique is, at its base, devaluing the work of specific translators.
I’m more interested in the structural nature of this and less into the evaluation of translators because I’ve spent hours and hours with editors at commercial, Big Five presses, and their evaluation of who makes a good translator is 100% infected by marketing opportunities. They openly talk about how no one pays attention to who translates a book, unless that person is a “superstar.” And what makes a “superstar”? The fact that a previous book they translated got enough sales and critical attention that people named the translator. Once you’re known, you’re on the radar for presses looking to profit off your reputation. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, this is capitalism, this is Tik Tok.
FILI + Influence
CWP: According to PW’s Translation Database, there have been 65 works of Finnish fiction published in the U.S. since 2008—you must’ve done a healthy proportion of them.
LR: Well, yeah, to be honest, there aren’t that many Finnish translators. I know almost all of them—at least electronically, and most of them in person. So, yeah, I suppose I must makeup, you know, roughly one fifth of the translation since 2008. Because there’s only a small number of titles.
Of the 65 works of Finnish fiction published here since 2008, 10 of them have been translated by Lola Rogers. Which is 15%. I could provide comparison points with other translator totals, but even in the absolute, being responsible for 15% of one culture’s impact on another’s seems pretty significant.
CWP: Yeah. But there has been, and I don’t know if “boom” is the right word, but there has been an increase in interest in Finnish literature since Purge was published. I remember when this came out. It was around the time I met Iris Schwank of FILI. This was during the London Book Fair, when I was working for Dalkey Archive Press. She told me and John O’Brien that FILI didn’t even bother contacting American publishers anymore because it was just “wasted money.” Nobody in America wanted to publish Finnish books so why reach out to them with marketing materials and books? And then that’s when we ended up doing Rosa Liksom’s Dark Paradise. A short story collection, and her first English publication. That was the beginning of Dalkey’s conversation with FILI. Now that there are a number of Finnish books coming out every year, from various publishers, FILI must feel a bit differently. Why do you think this change came about? What led to this interest in Finnish literature?
LR: Well, they were the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2014 and that made a big difference. Not only were English language publishers made aware of them for the first time, but there were just so many German translations that came out at that time. Far more English publishers were able to read the books. That’s the trouble with Finnish. I mean there’s two things about Finnish. The language is unlike any language an English-language publisher has ever had contact with. None of them can read it. So they have to hire somebody to read it for them.
CWP: I’m spitballing here, but maybe one of the issues with cultivating more translators from Finnish is the fact that, unlike Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish, it’s not related to the other Scandinavian languages. And whereas works from those languages are translated into the other two almost immediately, Finnish literature isn’t. Finnish novels don’t get that automatic translation—neither do Icelandic works—and that means that UK and U.S. presses don’t hear about them as fast. But that’s conflating two things: translators from Norwegian can more easily also do Swedish and Danish books, Finnish translators are relegated to Finland; and the idea that the more languages a book appears in (even if they are three sister languages), the more likely an English press will want to buy the rights.
LR: Right. And 20 or 25 years ago, there were almost no Finnish-to-English translators. There were like a couple of people bringing something out every five to ten years. That made a difference.
This difference is important, but let’s pause for one second to talk about FILI. Organizations like the Finnish Literature Exchange (FILI) are major players in this story about international books and why they get translated.
Living in a country where our current president is trying to defund the National Endowment for the Arts on an annual basis—the only national funding agency for literary arts—and has no such thing as a Ministry of Culture, these sorts of organizations might seem really foreign. But in a significant number of countries around the world, there are “book offices” that allocate not insignificant sums of money to have their cultural artifacts—including works of literature—promoted abroad. It’s a basic idea: How do you know what the country of Georgia is if you’ve never seen/read/heard anything that Georgians created?
These (frequently) governmental organizations provide funding to translators, translator training seminars or schools, editorial visits for international publishers, promotional and touring support, the ability to host events for free in their consulates and embassies around the world, promotion to members of their various cultural and governmental audiences, and, on rare occasions, a scheme in which they purchase copies of the book published in translation to distribute to libraries around the world.
These organizations are key players in what gets translated and how it gets promoted—for some presses. A commercial press doing books for commercial reasons isn’t as concerned with these organizations, which can lead to semi-awkward interactions on editorial junkets. On the one side you have small nonprofits looking for the necessary $35,000 threshold of funding and probably sales to be able to do an interesting book that you want your friends and cohort and junta to read; on the other you have editors looking for the book that will sell no fewer than 25,000 copies and hopefully 100,000 minimum because of your sales machine and the appeal of the book to the average “airport” reader. Squint all you want; these perspectives never completely mesh.
Click here for part two.