It began with a tattoo—or, rather, the idea for one. Small, I thought, with narrow script like the scratch of an EKG, on the back of my neck or perhaps my shoulder blade. Beauty in simplicity. It was the first tattoo I had ever considered; I needed something that had meaning to me, and this word in particular—this untranslatable word meant to evoke rather than merely name, to be felt rather than read—was as familiar to me as if I’d always known it.
The definition of saudade is as varied as its definers, and the latter span miles and centuries. Most understand it as a sense of sweet nostalgia for someone, or something, that one has lost and may never find again. Manuel de Melo called it “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” Saudade describes the lingering losses from the past, whether they be people left behind or times of our lives that we are loath to forget, and the bittersweet pleasure of those memories. It describes a thousand nuances of the same state of being. More than nostalgia; less than yearning. And very, very Portuguese. Maybe, in fact, too Portuguese for me to own it.
What do we mean when we say that a word is untranslatable? Do we mean that it’s inaccessible? The idea of translation is that we can convey meaning from one language to another, but that’s of course not always so simple. Many languages have their own words that lack direct translations—the French have retrouvailles, the idea of finding someone again after a long time, and the Germans amusingly have verschlimmbessern, a verb that means to make something worse while trying to improve it. It’s not that we can’t explain these words—only that it will take us a bit more time.
But saudade requires more than just a few fumbled sentences. This particular word runs hot at the core of Portuguese and Brazilian culture, and has done for centuries. It originates from the musical and poetic traditions of fado, its first mention in troubadour songs from the thirteenth century. The sailors on exploratory ships in far-flung and unfamiliar lands felt saudades for their homeland; so did their African slaves, from whose melancholy songs fado was born. It came to represent a national mindset. Poet Roy Campbell wrote in 1957, “The Portuguese are the only people to have a word which exactly hits off that sense of brooding exile, a sort of home-sickness which can even be felt at home, that otherwise indefinable fusion of yearning with satisfaction, pain with pleasure, and resignation with unattainability […] which the word saudades conveys so perfectly, as no other word in any other language.”
Ask the Portuguese to describe saudade and they’ll struggle. They’ll tell you that it comes from the earth; that it has always been part of Portugal; that you feel it or that it happens to you; that it’s inextricably linked to the people, the food, the ocean, the sun; that it is part of the Portuguese national “hyper-identity,” as Eduardo Lourenço put it. It is part of their philosophy. Some say that as a country they have saudades for the days Portugal bestrode the globe; others, speaking from loud New England apartments, have their own quiet saudades for the home they left behind. None can agree on a singular meaning. All agree that it is central to who they are.
Untranslatable; distinctly Portuguese; and so I question whether I have the right to saudade. I was born in America. The extent of my Portuguese is what a tattooed man named Gustavo taught me during one sun-drenched week in Lisbon. I think in sixth grade I did a school project on a Portuguese explorer, whose name I can no longer spell. I don’t pretend to understand Portuguese culture. But does that mean that I also can’t understand saudade? Is this something that is forbidden to me? Does untranslatable mean unattainable?
Linguists have debated whether words can ever be “untranslatable,” some arguing that no word is so unique that it cannot be explained. Yet perhaps the uniqueness lies not with the word itself, but with its past; a specific mulching of etymology and history that no two languages can perfectly share. This does not mean that untranslatable or highly unique words are solely for their own speakers; instead they act as an extension of their culture, not property of it. As outsiders, we can respect linguistic origins while still engaging with these words, honor them without appropriating them, because we, too, feel the feeling they’re meant to describe. Could I equally get a tattoo of sevdah (Bosnian) or Wehmut (German) or hiraeth (Welsh), all words which have similar meanings to saudade? I could. I could choose nostalgia, or soledad or desiderium. But, for me, none of these words pack the same emotional punch, the same satisfaction for having found a name for this sense of elusive longing.
I don’t share the Portuguese or Brazilian or Angolan intuition of saudade; I don’t feel it is a way of life for me in the way that many Portuguese speakers have described it. All the same, I know what they mean. I have saudades of my own that do not spring from the waves of Cascais or the lights of Rio de Janeiro that Tom Jobim saw as he sang “Samba do avião.” Mine are sweetly bruised memories of moments, of days I wanted to put in a firefly jar, of people I had to let go of before I was ready. And I have no word for that in my own language. I do not miss these things; I do not yearn for them; I have saudades for them.
Perhaps we should think of “untranslatable” in geometric terms, instead of linguistic—that is, moving without altering. While we can move “cat” to “chat” or “gato” without changing its shape, the same cannot be said of saudade. Perhaps its uniqueness is what makes it so beautiful, its elusive edges that morph through every attempt to define it. Perhaps it is that it has withstood seven centuries of attempted descriptions by poets and linguists and men in cafes that makes it that much more precious. So, even understanding that saudade conjures visions of fado and poetry and a lifestyle that is an artery of the Portuguese language, I think that I, too, have the right to have saudade—whether as a tattoo, or simply as that pleasant twinge of remembering what has been lost to me.
Emily Wolfteich holds a degree in French from the College of William & Mary. She currently works as an English teacher in rural France, but will be departing shortly for Peace Corps service in public health in the Kingdom of Swaziland. She hopes to continue doing translation work.
Photo of Porto, Portugal, by John Brian King