Sentimental Education: Berta García Faet’s “The Eligible Age,” Translated from Spanish by Kelsi Vanada

By Lucina Schell

the-eligible-age-465x700Fidelity is often considered a virtue in translation, especially when the translator is female. So what happens when a young female poet writing in English decides to translate a feminist work of great rhetorical sophistication by a young female poet writing in Spanish that specifically plays with the idea of an aesthetic of women’s writing? The title of Berta García Faet’s fifth book of poetry La edad de merecer (La Bella Varsovia, 2015), refers to an archaic term for women of marriageable age. Literally translated, it means “the age of meriting/deserving,” suggesting that women only begin to deserve things—such as respect in a patriarchal society—when they are old enough to marry. As a title, it subverts this sexist notion, proudly declaring the literary merit of the poetry inside and the achievement of its young author, only twenty-six at the time of publication. Cleverly translated as The Eligible Age by Kelsi Vanada, the bilingual edition from Song Bridge Press introduces anglophone readers to a Spanish poet who has been called “the most representative voice of her generation.”

García Faet is associated with the New Generation of Spanish poets, some of whom have gained unprecedented commercial success and massive social media followings, through experimentation with cursilería or cursi, intense emotional expression unafraid to skirt the line between confessional literature and sentimentality and cliché. The contemporary poet and critic Unai Velasco, in his excellent postscript to The Eligible Age, describes García Faet’s more linguistically sophisticated work as neocursilería, “the ironic form of cursilería because it reestablishes, through language, a quota of sublime emotivity that failed in the cursi—and has, at the same time, a subversive effect on the ideal of beauty protecting the cursi” (185).

Indeed, García Faet is distinctly aware of sentimental language as a powerful rhetorical register, and one predominantly associated with women’s writing. In an interview with Vanada published at The Rumpus, García Faet states her intention to subvert the stereotype of the “lyric woman”: “Okay, if you want me to be romantic and talk about my body, I will, but I’ll do it so radically, to such an extreme, that you won’t be able to trap me in it.” As Velasco concurs, “She subverts the figure of the femme fatale… This resource, which crosses all strata of the text, from the rhetorical to the political, works in several ways at the same time, devaluing it politically and elevating it aesthetically” (186). Turning a critical lens on her romantic relationships with both women and men and her sexual education in a patriarchal and Catholic society, García Faet explores the ways in which gendered languages delineate our understanding of our relationships and ourselves.

García Faet explodes the dichotomies of emotion and reason, body and mind, in her long poems which sprawl across and over pages, sometimes vertically in short lines, more often horizontally, with plenty of space, certain words scattered for emphasis, and occasionally tending toward blocks of poetic prose with minimal punctuation and no capitalization. Vanada respects this, and in fact takes it a step further, allowing Spanish, which minimizes capitalization, to make interventions in English with first-person pronouns and proper nouns left in lowercase. In a three-part poem which comes as close to an expression of poetics as we’ll find in this volume, García Faet writes “i gave up the piano / and my virginity / for the same philological reasons … the word / fails more and better / the word / word / fails more and better” (27). The poet gives up on ever capturing the emotional heights of Beethoven, which she compares in footnotes to orgasm—the sexual excess overflowing in unpunctuated blocks of prose marginalized below the main text but sometimes exceeding it in length—a language when played fluently that she clearly thinks more accurately translates human emotion into physical form than words. Later in part (C), after repeating the opening lines, she writes:

let’s call it rebellion let’s call it lucidity let’s call it


neither my song without words

nor my body without the words of the other

was worth it

would be worth it       will be worth it                   ever

i gave up                      i understood

i give up,

therefore i write (33)

Perhaps it’s resignation, but I’d more generously call García Faet’s project linguistic rebellion, and certainly a lucid one. Despite the inadequacy of language to express human emotion, García Faet decides to focus on what she does best: make attempts that strain language to its limits. As she puts it in “Poem about the River Lethe,” which plays on Plato’s suspicion of poets and his distinction between the world of ideas and the world of things: “the things of this world are everlastingly swift against my word…the things of this world imitate the shape of my heart and have the color of being startled. say, for example, love. and now it’s gone. it was never here. it’s not magic, it’s not a blunder. those are the limits of language” (73-75).

The interplay of sentimental and rational rhetorical registers in the book is a key part of García Faet’s feminist poetics, and Vanada matches these radical tonal shifts masterfully. For example, the first poem in the long final section of the book, which consists of epistles to a former lover, begins:

in person you talk to me in spanish
in writing you talk to me in english

it’s painful

you express yourself better
in the language of your ex-girlfriend

the irish one

who has a red and tiny

i know from a photo (123)

Vanada does not embellish García Faet’s simple and straightforward language, with the idiomatic “talk” for both spoken and written communication, and the choice of “pussy” for “coño,” which for added punch in English gets its own line unlike in the Spanish “que tiene un coño pelirrojo / y mímimo,” is inspired. Yet already by poem II, the poet backtracks, revealing in consciously meta lines the motivations behind the previous poem as not jealous but aesthetic, though seeming to protest too much: “i just mentioned your ex-girlfriend / because it seemed like it would fit pretty well in this poem.” Then, she slips from the conversational tone to academic rhetoric, “like counterpoint anaphora or something // it’s just that all sentimental education is essentially / linguistic” (123).

Jealousy in this astoundingly multilingual, international, and intergenerational relationship between the Spanish García Faet and Romanian Camil C. Stinga, thirteen years her senior, arises from the association of common languages with other lovers, and later from the pain of living daily life in different languages. Their relationship begins in Barcelona, and so Catalan is the language of their love, though neither’s mother tongue. Considering Stinga’s multiple Catalan-speaking ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends, García Faet wonders, “i mean what happens with all language with all love with / all progression / and regression” (133). Common languages can foster intimacy, as when the poet plays up her Spanish accent while speaking Romanian “so you’d fall hopelessly in love with me,” but also uniquely pointed barbs, as when she affects an exaggerated Romanian accent in Spanish (129). The poet writes from New York after the relationship has broken up, and the lack of their shared past in English, the language of her daily life, is a painful reminder of distance. She studies Italian to bridge the divide, since Stinga did her doctorate in Florence, but can’t seem to close the gap—Stinga’s now in Japan, while the poet has her own Italian ex-lover.

García Faet’s investigations of the emotional histories carried by different languages in a multicultural relationship must have been fascinating for the translator to explore. Sometimes her pointed linguistic inside jokes can’t easily be translated, as when she writes of one of the high points of her relationship with Stinga in Barcelona, “and also it turns out that on the train to sitges / i taught you to conjugate the present indicative of the verb estar / which is easy” (133). Spanish has two verbs for “to be” that distinguish between lasting or inherent states and those that are temporary. The joke that the verb estar, used for temporary states, is the one used to refer to relationship statuses, including marriage, is practically a cliché. Elsewhere, Vanada translates “to conjugate is to lie, and i believe myself to be,” a curious translation of the line “conjugar es mentir, y yo me creo,” the last phrase of which could be translated as “I believe (in) myself” (80-1). Perhaps Vanada made her choice in reference to the later line. It’s difficult to translate this more commonly European experience to notoriously monolingual North American readers, yet this is part of the richness García Faet’s work offers in this new context.

In her radical use of emotional excess, García Faet can be understood as in the lineage of confessional poets, many of whom she has translated into Spanish, such as Dorothea Lasky, but again, she finds the term limiting. As she says in the interview with Vanada, “Sincere or not, confessional or not, it seems like a pretty absurd dichotomy to me. Because literature is life, and the reverse. Whether a text is or isn’t sincere and confessional, it is, before all else, the product of aesthetic work. In other words, it’s a style, and not a true biography. I prefer to think in terms of honesty, honest work with language.” Plato distrusted poets for representing the world of ideal forms in seemingly ideal language. But García Faet knows that language has its own truth that operates independently of the objects it is meant to represent, freeing Vanada to aim for honesty and respect in her translation rather than the reduction of strict fidelity.

“It hurts to be reduced to a thigh or a language” García Faet writes in one of her “Thirteen Theses on the Better Understanding of the Birds of Eligible Age,” a feminist intervention in Wallace Steven’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” For the poet, to have her range of expression reduced to any single spoken language is a violence as diminishing as female objectification, a metonym that can’t stand for the complexity of the whole. “Structure and category are synonyms for skin,” the body and mind, emotion and rhetoric, are not so easily separated, nor should they be. “All language is lingua franca,” the poet recognizes; it is all but a poor attempt to externalize uncontainable emotions in a form that can be understood by others. All art is essentially translation.

García Faet, Berta. The Eligible AgeTranslated by Kelsi Vanada. Song Bridge Press, 2018.

Lucina Schell created Reading in Translation in 2013 to promote the critical analysis of the translator’s task in book reviews. She is a member of the Third Coast Translators Collective, and translates poetry from Spanish. Recent translations include Daiana Henderson’s So That Something Remains Lit (Cardboard House Press, 2018) and Vision of the Children of Evil by Miguel Ángel Bustos (co•im•press, 2018).

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