Honest Work with Language: Talking with Berta García Faet


Berta García Faet and I had an intense two-year working relationship and friendship before we finally met in person earlier this year, when I was living briefly in Spain. Most of our correspondence as I translated her fifth book of poems, La edad de merecer [The Eligible Age] into English for my master’s thesis in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa actually took place over Facebook messenger! We are thrilled to have found a home for the translation with independent publisher Song Bridge Press—it’s Berta’s first book publication in English.

Berta García Faet was born in Valencia, Spain, in 1988. She’s part of the New Generation of Spanish writers, the first born after Franco’s dictatorship—and as such she is helping to define the country’s new poetry after years of repression of every kind. In The Eligible Age, she confronts and subverts existing patriarchal and societal structures with great wit and candor. She and her long-time Madrid-based publisher, La Bella Varsovia, have gathered quite a following across the Spanish-speaking world.

Earlier this year Berta’s collected early poems, Corazón tradicionalista: Poesía 2008-2011 [Traditionalist Heart: Collected Poems 2008-2011] was published by La Bella Varsovia. She won the prestigious Premio de Poesía Joven [Young Poetry Prize] “Pablo García Baena” in 2010 for her book Introducción a todo [Introduction to Everything], and she’s currently at work on a PhD in Hispanic Studies at Brown University.

Berta was the warmest, most grateful supporter of my translation process. She spent many hours reading my drafts and providing feedback. Here, we give you some insight into our working relationship and dive into some of the most important themes of the poems in the book. We discuss everything from form, to gender and genre labels, to humor and breakups and the question of relatability.

¡Para leer la entrevista en español, haz click aquí!


The Rumpus: The original title of this book, La edad de merecer, is so perfect. It was quite the translation puzzle, as it’s an expression—and a dated one, at that. You told me once that it’s something a Spanish grandmother might say to her granddaughter once she’s gone through puberty. What’s this expression all about, and how does it pertain to the poems in the book?

Berta García Faet: “Estar en la edad de merecer” [literally, “To be at the age of deserving”] is an idiomatic expression referring to the stage when girls become young women and are ready to enter a romantic relationship, ready to begin looking for a husband. It’s an expression rooted in a very concrete ideology linking the value of girls/young women to their availability for love, for romance, for marriage, for reproduction. But something, interestingly, is elided: Just what do we deserve now, exactly? What are we supposedly worthy of? Something specific, like receiving the honor of having other people finally talk about us, or the honor of social importance? Or is it something more abstract: We become worthy and valuable in general?

The title of the book alludes to an ideological metaphor that’s, shall we say, conservative—and it’s a self-ironic title, because at the same time as I’m conscious of all the implications, the leitmotif of this book is, precisely, romantic love. But I’d say it’s romantic love regurgitated by a lyric “I” who, as she grows in age, also grows in her critical, political, and ethical consciousness. I started to have a real awareness of gender more or less at the time I started writing this book, so one way to think about it is as an intimate exploration, hyper-aware and maybe even dramatic, of what it means to go from being a girl to a young woman—and, in general, what it means to be a woman. Or to become a woman. In the sense of growth, and in the sense meant by Simone de Beauvoir.

Rumpus: This is a book that feels multi-genre and multi-form—you write everything from what feel like autobiographical prose poems, to list poems, to poems with long footnotes, to a re-writing of 1 Corinthians 13, the famous Bible chapter on love. What guides you to the right form for each poem?

García Faet: It’s lovely to think that for each pre-existing poem in my head, there also exists—huddled up somewhere, waiting—its perfect form. I think of Michelangelo discovering a sculpture in the rock, as if it were already there inside, just waiting to be chiseled into shape. But the truth is, I have no idea. Before I write a poem, I sometimes have a vague idea of what it’s going to be like, but in the end it’s something that gets decided during the process.

Rumpus: In his postscript to the translation of your book, poet and editor Unai Velasco writes that it provides “a critique of those who reject emotion as a primary textual driving force, and of those who associate this emotion with female modes of creation and perception.” How do gender and emotion interact in these poems?

García Faet: Gender is crucial to this book, actually. Like I said before, the book reflects a personal evolution, as well as a literary one, which came through a type of deep—and sometimes mercilessly painful—self-analysis. What I find interesting about what Unai says is the possibility of re-appropriating stereotypes on purpose. For example, the re-appropriation of stereotypes about gay men. Gay men are supposedly effeminate, elegant, dramatic, sensitive, etc. One way a gay man could reject the stereotype would be to show emphatically that he’s exactly the opposite: a real macho. Another way is to ignore the stereotype and live out his identity in the freest and most spontaneous way possible. Another way is to say: “Well, yes, I’m effeminate, elegant, dramatic, sensitive, and everything you say I am. And I’ll continue to be, but in a different way than you expect. I’m going to skirt the stereotypes, live along their boundaries.” A way of shaking up people’s preconceptions.

I think about feminine emotionality in similar terms. In the face of the stereotype that female poetry is twee, confessional, interested in the body, love, etc., poets like Ángela Segovia deliberately make those leitmotifs into a great emptiness, a defensive silence. They refuse to talk about what people think they should talk about. It’s a great option. In my case, I think a lot about how to combine that—the “Fuck you, you’ll never label me or understand me because I rattle your most basic expectations”—with the “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.” So yeah, basically I re-appropriate the stereotype of the “lyric woman.”

Rumpus: I’m not sure I’ve ever told you this, but as I was translating the poems in the final section, “I Was So in Love with Camil C. Stíngă,” formed of three “epistles” to a former partner of yours, I had recently gone through a breakup. I was one very sad woman, and it felt so good to translate these poems, to be intimate with them, because their sadness and rage and sarcasm was just what I was feeling. So I guess my question is, how do you feel about the idea of “relatability”? I used to groan inwardly when my university students said their main reason for liking a book was that it was “so relatable,” but is there something to that?

García Faet: What you said is so lovely, and that “relatability” makes me really happy. It might sound naïve, but for me it’s key. It’s a relatability that isn’t just psychological and biographical, but also existential and aesthetic. For as intelligent and ingenious and brilliant as a book might be, in order to touch my emotions, to move me, I need something more, something I’m not sure what to call—maybe just mutual understanding, life. As it turns out, that’s what I’m looking for when I write, too.

Rumpus: Perhaps a related question: What’s your take on the “New Sincerity”? And while we’re on the subject of literary labels, are there others you claim or reject? I’m thinking of confessional poetry, for example.

García Faet: 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.

Rumpus: I like that a lot. I find that much of the strength—or maybe the honesty—of your writing comes through its humor and irony. These are two aspects of your language that were the most pleasurable to work with as a translator! For example, lines like “gentlemen and gentlemen of the Royal Academy / of the Spanish Language” or “tragically we’ve both kissed French people and we know what that’s like.” I’ve always wanted to be a funny writer, but I find humor so hard to use well. How do you view humor and irony, and have you always been a funny writer? Or was it something you’ve had to develop?

García Faet: I love humor! I admire a lot of stand-up comedians; I honestly think they’re geniuses. In my case, the humorous vein is something I can’t avoid. I love to laugh. When I’m being more serious there’s also laughter, because there’s self-irony. It’s a problem of my being so self-conscious.

Rumpus: When The Eligible Age was in its manuscript stage as my MFA thesis, Elizabeth Willis was on my committee, and she described your poems as “queering language.” In Saeed Jones’s article “Queering Poetics, or ‘Werking’ It,” he defines it this way:

…queer implies a slipperiness, a subversion of expectations and conventions, and inability to sit still, a refusal to obey. Those qualities, at least in my mind, are the essence of any line of poetry worth reading.

In your poems, on a language level, would you agree? What relationship do your lines and syntax have to subversion?

García Faet: I love that idea. I’m not sure I succeed, but that’s my intention—to make language writhe, to defamiliarize it. But I never forget about the other part of the Russian theory of defamiliarization, which isn’t talked about as much: poetic language defamiliarizes, but later it changes direction and refamiliarizes us with our own language and with life as it is, with the everyday things around us. I want to make language strange, but in the end I want love to win the day—I mean, for signifier and signified to connect magically thanks to love (that’s pretty mystical and it’s found in Corinthians, which you mentioned earlier). I firmly believe in it.

Rumpus: You mentioned love, which makes me think of a Spanish lit professor I had in my undergraduate degree. She said that English is better for business and negotiation, while Spanish is the language for poetry and love. She was generalizing, of course. But as someone who works in and from both languages, having also translated poetry yourself, do you see that there are different strengths of English and Spanish as languages for poetry? Or is that a bad question?

García Faet: Haha! No, I think it’s a great question. I don’t know how you see it, since English is your mother tongue and you also speak Spanish fluently. I don’t know if you experience emotional areas that, despite your professor’s ideas, just activate more for you in English than in Spanish. I would tend to agree with your professor, but only because Spanish is my mother tongue, and because I’m not bilingual—my English is lacking, and always will be. Certain shades of meaning escape me, certain details. Never mind all those connotations! In my experience—and, like I said, it’s totally mediated by which of the two is my mother tongue—English does feel more structured to me, it’s all chunks, categories. That’s why translating is such an impressive and strange experience, you know?

Rumpus: I do know! I’m always fascinated by the differences and similarities between the two languages. You’ve told me you have English-speaking friends who’ve been anxious to read your poems for some time now, but don’t have access to the Spanish language. What are your hopes for them and for other Anglophone readers who will encounter your work for the first time—especially if their previous knowledge of Spanish poetry was limited, say, to translations of Federico García Lorca or a handful of other poets?

García Faet: I’ll take advantage of this interview to thank you again publicly for the tremendous work you’ve put into this translation, and for how beautiful and precise and intense it is. Now it’s your book, too, and I don’t think we could measure it in terms of fifty percent mine and fifty percent yours. Now this book is ours, and its language is your language too. My hopes for this publication are that the book is read, and it’s a gift that it can be read in two languages. My thanks are also due to Bill, our editor. In spite of the fact that I live here in the US and read American poetry obsessively, I don’t have a clue as to what the book’s reception might be like. I know more or less where my book fits into the Spanish canon, as well as the Latin American canon—where it can be read from, what its lineage is. I don’t have a clear sense of where it will be read from in English. It’s a mystery I’m excited to watch unfold.

Rumpus: You published your first book in 2008, when you were twenty. How have you changed as a writer since then, and where are you going?

García Faet: Wow, ten years ago. Half a year ago Corazón tradicionalista: Poesía 2008-2011 [Traditionalist Heart: Collected Poems 2008-2011] came out in Spain, which was a wild experience for me, because it meant returning to my first poems, some of which were from as far back as 2006. I think that in all the years since then, I’ve been growing as a reader, and inevitably that has helped me as a writer, too. In my first book, I invented characters, so I was writing a kind of dramatic, narrative poetry. In my next three books I experimented as much as I could with the lyrical convention of women’s poetry that I spoke of earlier: emotivity, subjectivity, experience. But I’ll keep emphasizing that all these qualities are stylistic decisions. One thing I didn’t realize in the moment and that I do see now, is how I was already making use of irrationality and synesthesia, how those poems overflow “beyond the semantic,” and how, actually, that was decisive for me. I think the four years separating that first stage from La edad de merecer were key, and I see this book as the beginning of a new phase. On a biographical level, going from twenty years old to twenty-seven—which is how old I was when La edad de merecer was published—is important. Those are crucial years!

Kelsi Vanada's translation of The Eligible Age by Berta García Faet was published in 2018 by Song Bridge Press. She holds MFAs in Poetry (Iowa Writers' Workshop) and Literary Translation (University of Iowa). She translates from Spanish and collaboratively from Swedish, and her poems and translations have been published recently or are forthcoming in the Iowa Review, The Bennington Review, Court Green, and Anomaly. She is Program Manager of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). Follow her on Twitter @KelsiVanada. More from this author →