15 Apr

Painting by Almeida_Junior_Saudade_1899One quality which fado must possess, as all guidebooks will attest, is saudade. I’ll begin my investigation of this magical word with a curious fragment from September 1928, in which the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno nestles the word ‘saudade’ among a selection of Spanish and Galician terms with which he wishes it to forge a poetic connection:

Morriña, saudade, iñor,
añoranza, señardá,
soleares, ay, Señor,
¿ cuándo el dia llegará ?

(untitled poem in Escritos de Unamuno sobre Portugal, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, 1985)

The words the poet chooses all express a sense of longing for which the final line (‘Lord, when will the day arrive?’) provides a ‘translation’. It was not the first time Unamuno had sought to find connections between Spanish and Portuguese terms of longing; a poem from earlier the same year, entitled ‘Soidade + Saúde = Saudade’, attempted a poetic etymology that made much of the relationship between the Portuguese words of the title and the Spanish words soledad (solitude) and salud (health). In doing so the poet was tapping into a debate that had long been underway in Portugal about the correspondence, or lack thereof, between saudade and words from other languages. Aniceto dos Reis Gonçalves Viana, writing a critique of Hugo Schuchardt’s Die Cantes Flamencos in 1882, had the following to say on the relationship:

The Spanish word soledad is given [by Schuchardt] as corresponding perfectly in its sense to the Portuguese saudade … Looking at the soleá, the word soledad does not correspond to saudade, but rather to ‘solitude’, solidão.

Saudade is nothing like this. Saudade is ‘the sorrow of not having enjoyed that which was there to be enjoyed; it is the vehement but resigned desire to enjoy a thing we were deeply attached to; and also the yearning to see, or be in the company of, someone from whom we have reluctantly been parted’.

(Quoted in Dalila L. Pereira da Costa & Pinharanda Gomes, Introdução à Saudade: Antologia Teórica e Aproximação Crítica (Porto, Lello & Irmão, 1976), p. 10.)

Viana then goes on to liken saudade to the German Sehnsucht, the Icelandic saknadr, the Swedish saknad and the Danish Sawn. As for an English equivalent, he can only settle for a phrase he finds in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones: ‘The remembrance of past pleasure affects us with a kind of tender grief, like what we suffer for departed friends; and the ideas of both may be said to haunt our imagination.’ 

Aubrey Bell, writing some twenty years later, states that ‘the word cannot be translated exactly, but corresponds to the Greek πόθος, Latin desiderium, Catalan anyoranza, Galician morriña, German Sehnsucht, Russian тоска (pron. taská). It is the “passion for which I can find no name”’. (Aubrey F.G. Bell, Portuguese Literature (Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 135, fn. 1.) Interestingly, Bell, like Viana before him, does not attempt a single English term for saudade, relying on a list of words in other languages and a quotation from George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft. Actually, this is a misquotation; the original reads ‘a passion to which I can give no name’. The difference is immaterial yet it is worth remembering the original phrase within its context as it is most appropriate for a consideration of the relationship between loss and desire that saudade is supposed to evoke. Ryecroft’s place of longing has therefore been given its own entry.

The assumption by Bell seems to be that the foreign words are translatable amongst themselves (or are, at least, in ‘correspondence’ with each other) but not into English and that an allusion to a literary work about memory and meditation on loss is the nearest that we, as English speakers, might come to an understanding of saudade. A chain of references is set up through which a contemporary reader coming upon Bell’s footnote of 1922 (probably via references to Bell in later works) is led to Gissing’s fictional pastoralist Ryecroft and a whole set of methods of dealing with the past that in turn form a major defining aspect of modernity. Rodney Gallop provides us with yet more definitions:

In a word saudade is yearning: yearning for something so indefinite as to be indefinable: an unrestrained indulgence in yearning. It is a blend of German Sehnsucht, French nostalgie, and something else besides. It couples the vague longing of the Celt for the unattainable with a Latin sense of reality which induces realization that it is indeed unattainable, and with the resultant discouragement and resignation. All this is implied in the lilting measures of the fado, in its languid triplets and, as it were, drooping cadences.

(Rodney Gallop, ‘The Fado: The Portuguese Song of Fate’, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1933), pp. 211-2).

As these references increase, the need to negotiate a path through them – to find, perhaps, our own correspondence with the terms of reference – becomes ever more necessary; this is what Umberto Eco seems to drive at when he speaks of ‘translation as negotiation’. Svetlana Boym, for her part, likens saudade to the Czech litost, Russian toska, Polish tesknota and Romanian dor, and points out how each nation claims its term as untranslatable: ‘While each term preserves the specific rhythms of the language, one is struck by the fact that all these untranslatable words are in fact synonyms; and all share the desire for untranslatability, the longing for uniqueness. While the details and flavors differ, the grammar of romantic nostalgias all over the world is quite similar. “I long therefore I am” became the romantic motto.’ (Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 13).

One might well wonder given all this, especially after being informed that saudade is one of the essential ingredients of fado music, if there was a line of thought to be traversed whereby the ‘untranslatability’ of saudade would mean the impossibility of the conditions to describe an appreciation of fado by a non-Portuguese speaker (which would not necessarily entail going as far as to declare the impossibility of appreciating ‘the music itself”, though to do so would help to push at what we really mean by ‘the music’) – the logic being that, if fado must contain saudade, and saudade cannot be translated, then how do we translate, or negotiate, our appreciation of the music? Picking at this line of thought would inevitably lead us to further questions. Does, or can, saudade mean the same for all Portuguese (the implication, after all, in so many texts)?  Does it mean the same for other Portuguese speakers, for Brazilians, Angolans, Cape Verdeans? How might saudade be considered as another type of fencing-off? How, in the light of such reflections, do we understand loss and its expression as universal qualities?


6 Responses to “Saudade”

  1. Filipe June 14, 2014 at 2:23 am #

    Here is what I think, being that I only have knowledge of the Portuguese, English and Spanish languages, not even a drop of any eastern European one: I think saudade can be ‘translated’ to Spanish fairly easily, the only difference with most other words translated between those two languages, is that one’d have to use words of different roots in each language. But the meaning is there, I think.
    In English is, for me, the same feeling as to “miss” someone or something, yearn or long for something or some experience… the difference here is that saudade can only be applied to something from the past, that, therefore, is impossible to be relived – at least in presumption. Anyway, saudade is, to me, universal, and, if not easy to translate as a word, it’s basically because every language dealt and felt it differently as they came from different historical and cultural backgrounds… but the human feeling is always there. I think this kind of discussion and cultural differences only enrich the human experience and existence… I’m happy that I am luck enough to be able to get to know a little of so many different cultures and ways of living and thinking reality.

    • Filipe June 14, 2014 at 2:23 am #

      By the way, nor my english nor my spanish are natives XD so I can be wrong about those things.

      • Richard June 14, 2014 at 8:28 am #

        Hi Filipe,

        Thanks for the comments. Good points!

  2. Elizabeth July 5, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    I am born in New York but practically raised in Galicia, Spain. I disagree that it is easily translatable. To long for something in Galician is to have “morriña”, to long for something so passionately that the memories are part of the emotion is saudade. And it does not have to be sad. There is hope in saudade. I use the term when I miss Galicia. “I have saudade of the waves breaking on my toes”. It’s just filled with more emotion than yearning or longing. I hope to return as it has been two years since I’ve been back to the states. I have a poster on my wall of Carnota Beach and it gives me a feeling making me certain that I will see it again.

    • Richard July 7, 2014 at 10:37 am #

      Hello Elizabeth. My point is more that I don’t believe only certain people from certain places can feel certain things (especially when those things are fairly universal qualities such as loss, hope, yearning, nostalgia, etc.) and that therefore anyone not from that place/culture/background is unable of having (or at least understanding, and therefore ‘translating’) similar feelings. Language then intervenes as a way for us to try and capture those feelings. Because these kinds of feelings can be found all over the world, and because many of those who experience them try to put them into words and phrases, it seems likely that many of those words and phrases are synonyms of some sort when trying to articulate the aches and hopes of yearning. This, at least, is how I read Svetlana Boym’s take on ‘saudade’ and its synonyms. Because language is so intimately and publicly connected to nations, regions and sensibilities, it is perhaps inevitable that, just as we define boundaries and borders for nations and regions, so we create them for language items.
      It also comes down to what we mean by ‘translate’. I like Umberto Eco’s take on translation as ‘negotiation’, as a process without definite answers. So perhaps a term like ‘saudade’ may not seem ‘easily translatable’, but perhaps also it is fairly easily ‘negotiated’.


  1. In which I wake up. | Amanda Headlee - March 11, 2017

    […] Pennsylvania and ends in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (those closest to me know of the ‘saudade‘ of the ride’s finish line location). And, I decided to take the final step in […]

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