Cameron Griffiths 


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Joan Brossa, Visual Poem, 1989
Joan Brossa, Visual Poem (Espanya), 1970
Joan Brossa, Visual Poem, 1989

Un amic té la mania de modificar
A friend of mind loves to change
els refranys.

Joan Brossa,
from ‘Tarda’ / ‘Afternoon,’ El saltamartí

Readers already familiar with Joan Brossa will know that he wrote primarily in Catalan, but—as was noted by João Cabral de Melo in his prologue to Joan Brossa Made Me (Em va fer), 1950—it was ‘in the language of the most humble of realities, the kitchens, the markets, the workshops’ where Brossa grounded his work. Thus, as was more recently suggested by Marc Audí, although Brossa’s language owes much to the street, ‘none of the language is commonplace, it is artisanal.’ 

This is as true for El saltamartí as in any of Brossa’s writings. His language can at first appear simple and straight, but once assimilated into the Brossian poetic framework (which includes pieces that could be cut straight out of daily newspapers), the resulting verse creates a complex space in which the translator must work—employing the spatial, proverbial and political concerns of their own ‘humble reality’—and perhaps it is this that has presented a barrier to his work being more widely translated previously.

Valuably, in an epilogue that follows Joan Brossa made me, Andrés Sánchez Robayna, a translator of Brossa self-reflecting on his work, notes that Brossa ‘provided one piece of advice’ for any prospective translation: ‘find the flavour of the colloquial Catalan phrase in the target language.’ This is a rule of thumb that I have attempted to follow. From the very outset, in El saltamartí the reader encounters the Catalan proverbial. The book is more than fifty years old; languages move, grow and die at different speeds and the English equivalent of a proverb that is still in use in Catalan today might have fallen out of favor and seem odd to a contemporary English reader. Perhaps sometimes there is no apparent equivalent. So not only is the translator existing in a space between languages, but also in a space between times, between contexts. It is in this space where the practice of translation is implicated by Brossa as a part of his poetic practice. It has to become creative. Involved. Participant. The consideration of a current readership must be balanced with a faithfulness to the original text. I have attempted to strike an equilibrium between these zones, that can be the difference between a successfully translated poem and a successful poem that leaves itself behind.

Joan Brossa, sketches for ‘Lleteria’ / ‘Dairy’
(from Brossa’s original manuscript for El saltarmartí

Other translators of Brossa have spoken about the process by which they achieve a final product; perhaps working in pairs, or consulting a member of the previous generation in order to access a poem’s intended meaning and political punch. Working with the grain of Brossa’s verse, a translation of quality must surely represent an engagement with Brossa’s body of work by way of Catalan culture, or involve native Catalan speakers, as was the case with this translation: the contextual framework provided by those involved was instrumental in my finding the voice of this collection. There is a dialogue within and between these poems that meant the translation was often fluid, often challenging.

Brossa was a poet with a great ear; the poems are full of music, and much of the rhythm and rhyme stem from the colloquial. His framework (the play with formal structure;  free verse; his early experiments with visual poetry) revitalises this language with meaning, with the very idea and immediacy of speech, and the inherent force of his verse can be both beautiful and savagely subversive. 

Joan Brossa (1919–1998) was born in Barcelona into a family of artisans. He began writing when he was mobilised in the Spanish Civil War and, following an introduction to surrealism by way of the friendship and influence of Joan Miró and Joan Prats, would fuse political engagement and aesthetic experiment through sonnets, odes, theatre, sculpture and screenplay within a neo-surrealist framework. Brossa founded the magazine Dau al Set in 1948 and, during the fifties and sixties, his poetry was increasingly informed by collectivist concerns. His collection El saltamartí (1963) presented a synthesis of themes both political and social, and the subsequent publication of Poesia Rasa (1970), Poemes de seny i cabell (1977), Rua de llibres (1980)—and the six volumes of Poesia escénica (published between 1973 and 1983)—saw Brossa stake his place as a central figure in contemporary Catalan literature.

Cameron Griffiths studied History and English Literature at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. His poetry has appeared in journals in New Zealand, Australia and the United States. He lives with his family in Spain.

All images courtesy of
Fundació Joan Brossa, © 2021.