Olga Ravn and Martin Aitken talk about the International Booker Prize-longlisted The Employees.
Author Olga Ravn and translator Martin Aitken on the jumbled statements in The Employees and what it’s like to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize.
Hi Olga, what has it been like to be longlisted?
It has been the most wonderful, delightful surprise.
How would you sum up The Employees in one sentence?
It’s a novel about trying to stay hard, but gradually being exposed to yourself as the softest material.
Why do you choose the setting of a spaceship for your novel?
I worked closely together with the artist Lea Guldditte Hestelund, while writing the book, and she suggested a space somewhere between a spaceship and an Alexander Wang flagship store, which was very inspiring to me. I wanted a space that was completely confined, with no exit, and I also wanted to see what would happen if human beings were taken out of their ecology, away from Earth. By making Earth distant I could examine man’s relationship to it in a new way. I wanted to examine how we relate to the soil, the weather, the atmosphere, and I wanted to write about this obsession with resources. And when I say resources, I mean both land and bodies. I also needed personally to write about a feeling of having lost your relationship to land. So, I made the characters loose contact with Earth, literally.
The order of the ‘statements’ is jumbled, according to the numbering. What is the significance of this and do you expect the reader to re-read it in a different order?
There is no grand plan behind this. I think the committee simply jumbled the papers together in a messy pile and put them in a file. A lot of statements are also missing, and in the last part of the book you kind of get an explanation as to why we as readers are not granted access to the complete material. I certainly do not expect the reader to re-read it in a different order. Could you imagine the work? I would encourage people to read it as they want to.
Hi, Martin, what has it been like to be longlisted?
Like being catapulted exhilaratingly into a very tall tree, then wondering how you’re going to get down again.
What did you enjoy about translating The Employees?
I love the strange, disquieting poetry of the piece, and the restrained nature of each of the statements, which in some cases are almost like small, beguiling objects you can pick up and examine, perhaps even press to your cheek. Like the objects carried by the ship.
As The Employees is based in a futuristic setting, was there any language used which was difficult to directly translate?
The autonomous bio-draperies and the various other objects are of course all rather abstract in quality, which probably had me hovering a bit. But the language itself is beautifully straightforward throughout.
The order of the ‘statements’ is jumbled, according to the numbering – did you translate the book in its written order, or chronologically?
I’d already done a small number of them for a magazine, from different parts of the book. They may even have been published there in a different order. But apart from that I started on the first page. It’s intriguing, though, how arranging those statements differently would impact on the narrative.