Nostalgia Series – Saudade

Saudade is not sorrow. It is not nostalgia, and it is not longing. And yet, it can be. 

In the most generalised of terms, it is a pining for something that does not, and perhaps cannot, exist anymore. 

More than an active grief, it is akin to a wistful melancholic dream. It could describe the longing for both something as concrete as your home or a loved one, or something as abstract as a sense of completeness.

But Saudade was never meant to be a linguistic absolute – some unshakable axiom. Like any other word, it is a vessel of fluid meaning, varying in both a spatial and temporal sense. 

The Brazilian and Portuguese interpretations of the term, for instance, have certain region specific differences

Even within Portugal itself, the word has carried different connotations at different points in history. 

Its roots lie in Pantheistic ideals- the ‘saudade’ predominant at the time was that of a yearning to return to the Earth itself. 

But in the years to come with the advent of the Great Portuguese Discoveries, it would acquire an even greater shade of melancholy, as it began to be associated with the feeling that gripped many at the time, especially Portuguese women and children, as they felt an acute longing for their loved ones who went out into unknown seas, and never came back. 

In the second half of the 20th century, it would gain a more patriotic connotation, as it began to represent a yearning for one’s motherland. This was predominantly sparked by a wave of mass emigration at the time from Portugal to North America and Western Europe- those who had left their home in search of greener pastures would often feel nostalgic for their homeland. Parallely, Portugal’s declining stature in the political and economic stage, meant that people, confronted with their home in decay, would wish to return to ‘better’ times. (A sentiment eerily similar to Trump’s 2016 rallying calls of making America great again) Both these factors in conjugation gave the word a decidedly nationalist tinge. 

But perhaps Saudade, in all its semantic beauty, is not that special after all. Perhaps our endeavour to translate is misguided in the first place. Because words in any language, no matter how inane they might seem, contain multitudes – their existence is intermeshed in a web of socio-cultural traditions and meanings that we could never really hope to unravel entirely. 

Words are rarely ever just words. They carry ghosts with them. Spectres of centuries of usage. Semantic nuances that can often reflect the very ‘soul’ of a culture. All of which add to a lexical gap that translation attempts, and often fails, to cross.

Any attempt to translate words from one language to another, will always inevitably skim over some of these lexical nuances. Translation can often be the equivalent of smoothing out the texture of meaning,  offering us only an approximation, but never the whole truth. 

A character in R.F. Kuang’s fantasy novel ‘Babel’, at one point says a rather curiously pessimistic interpretation of the idea of translation.

‘Translation means doing violence upon the original’, he says, ‘it means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes.’

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be so. Translation can be an act of understanding. Of empathy. 

An attempt to see the world through someone else’s eyes. A necessary endeavor, however futile, to bring us closer together.

Every language has its secrets. 

Saudade is just one such secret of the Portuguese tongue that the rest of us will never really have the fortune of knowing.

But we try. And perhaps that is what matters most of all. 


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