Posts by Emily Wolfteich

Saudade and the Untranslatable

Emily Wolfteich asks: Does untranslatable mean unattainable?

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.