WWB: Can the two of you talk about how The Employees came into the world—first, the germ in the original language, and then the translation?
Olga Ravn (OR): Initially I wrote the book as a companion piece to Danish artist Lea Gulditte Hestelund’s exhibition in Copenhagen in 2018. While writing for the exhibition I got the sense that perhaps this was a novel, that there was a book here. I like collaborating like this, to have some kind of boundaries set by others. I had wanted to write a science fiction book for a while, but hadn’t known how to go about it, frankly perhaps because I didn’t have the guts to do it. Lea and I bonded over non-human lifeforms also in relation to mediums used by visual artists, like marble, hide and so on. It is very important to meet these people, that inspire you to write towards a certain place or community, that until that point has been unclear to you, but suddenly you have access, and the book can be written.
Martin Aitken (MA): I don’t know how things came together behind the scenes, but I was asked to do some excerpts from the book for Mayday, an English-language arts magazine based in Copenhagen. At some point I was approached by Denise Rose Hansen who had started Lolli Editions in London to publish innovative European literature in English. New Directions came in after that to publish the US edition.
WWB: What particular translation challenges arose as this book was brought into English? Were they points that the author anticipated, or was there something of a process of discovery in which the author found that the translator shed light on unexpected aspects of the original-language work?
OR: I think this is a question for you, Martin. But I will add that I’m very grateful for Martin’s translation. English has a much more flowing, flowery musicality than Danish with all its wonky cadences, and I think Martin has interpreted or translated between these two rhythmic differences in such an inspired way.
MA: The Employees is the work of an extraordinary imagination, at once dreamlike and unsettlingly recognizable. Olga’s short, perfectly formed sentences are filled with poetic suggestion, yet couched in everyday language, deceptively simple-looking. More fundamentally, I think my task was less linguistic than it was a matter of representing the environment in my mind and sensing its moods emotionally, entering that strange atmosphere so it could seep through into the translation.
WWB: Dear Olga and Martin: In The Employees, a crew of human and humanoid crew members working on a vessel known as Six Thousand Ship complain about their daily tasks in a series of staff reports and memos. When the ship takes on a number of strange objects from the planet New Discovery, the crew becomes strangely and deeply attached to them, even as tensions boil toward mutiny, especially among the humanoids. In his review of the novel for this publication in March of this year, critic J. Howard Rosier suggests that, though The Employees is not a pandemic novel, it grapples with a lot of the questions we had both during the pandemic and now as we begin to come out of it: among them, who is “essential” and who is not (and what that really means). We also see the humanoids begin to have human experiences, prompting questions about artificial intelligence. Questions of the role of work and of workplace hierarchies have been front-and-center (at least among certain groups) as debates over remote work and the demands of work have surged in the United States after the pandemic. At the same time, the switch to automation in several areas of our everyday lives has sped up. I wonder what it might have been like to watch this unfold after having written/translated this book, and whether you feel like the novel has gained a new urgency, and much more quickly than you expected?
OR: Thank you, that is a great question. I wrote the novel in one month in November 2017, at a time where the climate crisis filled me with urgency perhaps more than it usually does. I had also recently become a mother. I was in the state of infant care where there is no day or night, no set schedule and everything is a sort of intuitive listening combined with an overwhelming sense of responsibility for human life. Then I had to go back to work at my office job and I just found it completely absurd. It was grotesque to sit and write at a keyboard all day, when those fingers had recently touched skin that was so new to the atmosphere.
Our entire life is structured around work. Sleeping for eight hours, for example, is a relative new invention in human history, formed around our work life. Our total division of public and private life is part of the work-life structure. Giving birth was like having a veil ripped violently from my eyes. This was one of the things I wanted to examine in The Employees, the workplace derived of softness, with no flexibility. And how the ideology, if you can call it that, of the workplace forms our minds, dreams, feelings. And how our relationship to capital, production, value forms our relationship to human labour, resources and land. The pandemic revealed a crisis, that was already underway, perhaps it sped it up in some way. The common agreement to stay home made it possible to take a new perspective on work and the workplace.
I was not surprised as to how this unfolded at all, I think it was already unfolding before the pandemic. I’m ambivalent about the statement, that the novel should have gained new urgency because of the pandemic. The reasons for the pandemic and for the global reactions to it, those reasons were already there. The pandemic didn’t change anything as much as it revealed for us something that we already knew.
MA: The Employees powerfully evokes a bleak human truth, which is the loneliness of dislocation. In the age in which we live, where the imperatives of production press ever more disastrously against the natural world and what it is to be human, that loneliness bears down on us increasingly. Like the strange objects the crew take on board from the planet New Discovery, The Employees spoke to me profoundly in the black, empty space of the pandemic. In its own obliquely poetic way, the novel brings all the issues you mention welling up inside as emotions. It’s an alarmingly prescient and deeply moving work of art.
Olga Ravn and Martin Aitken’s The Employees is one of ten titles longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature.