Saudade: That Untranslatable Feeling

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The Portuguese word saudade has always presented translators with a problem, and regularly finds its way into books and articles about the world’s most “untranslatable” words. A bilingual dictionary may offer “longing”, “yearning” and “nostalgia” as possible translations. But saudade cannot be reduced to any of these English words. One Portuguese dictionary defines the concept as a “lembrança grata de pessoa ausente ou de alguma coisa de que alguém se vê privado” (“a happy memory of a person who is absent or of something that one finds oneself deprived of”), as well as the “pesar, mágoa que essa privação causa” (“sadness and sorrow that this deprivation causes”). Saudade is therefore a double-edged feeling of both happiness and sadness at once, provoked by something or someone that one misses. Indeed, “I miss you” is generally translated into Portuguese as “tenho saudades tuas”. The famous Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa likened the feeling of saudade to watching a beautiful sunset, being deeply moved and elated by the experience but also saddened by the knowledge that it will never again be witnessed.

It is little wonder, then, that such a complex feeling does not easily lend itself to translation. Saudade is a peculiarly Portuguese word, being culturally specific and appearing, as we shall see, as an important theme across the Lusophone world from its beginnings to the present day. From the Age of Discoveries that saw explorers leave behind their homeland to build the world’s first global empire, to the later yearning for past greatness as the empire dwindled, to the wistful traditional music of Portugal and Cape Verde, we see saudade appear in a wide range of cultural and historical contexts, such that its “untranslatability” is also related to questions of Portuguese and Lusophone identity. Exploring saudade therefore provides a window into the Lusophone world, diverse in its makeup but nonetheless united by a common language and troubled colonial past.