In numerous ways I’ve been warned and reminded that the untranslatability of “saudade”—a word from the Portuguese language which evokes the deep, mournful, and yet sometimes beautiful longing for something or someone, an ability to live in memory, an all-encompassing feeling of nostalgia that is as tormented as it is restorative of our capacity to feel fully and expansively—is both fact and a matter of Brazilian cultural pride. Even the slightest, most indirect hinting at the word’s possible existence in another language should be approached with great caution, for the borders of saudade involve a depth of perception and a brave willingness to explore the limits of memory that may be unique to the collective conscious of Lusofonia, prepared for such journeys by the presence of the word itself.
Once, in Bahia, I watched a beautiful young woman push her French boyfriend out of her apartment, his garments spilling into the hallway, guilt and furrowed brow marking his search for a reason. Through the doorway, though the most descript of insults could have been applied to the lousy Parisian womanizer, the most brutal of them all was achieved just before the sound of the door slamming: ‘you and your fake French romanticism, you’ll never be able to feel saudade because it’s not even part of your language, and I won’t either because you’re nothing but a cachorro.” It is hard to capture the weight of the translated version without seeing her magnificent eyes cut deeper into her subject’s confined emotive world with each syllable, the smile of triumph that emerged when his lack of access to the heart of Brazil’s memory was solidified.
I wasn’t sure (and never will be) if the man turned devious dog understood the reach of that comment, one of the greatest denials of the capacity to feel and understand saudade I had heard, and as I crouched into the corner with my ears back (I the one semi-raised by dogs but certainly not a cachorro), the sweetest of sweet voices sounded after the emotions calmed: ‘ô, meu amigo, tu fala Português do coração, eu já te vi chorar da saudade que tu sente, você é da gente viu?’ Somehow the outbursts that I had always attributed to “el mistério” (those moments from the heart that people who know me just let pass because they are aware that there is no way to categorize them into language) translated into belonging through the shared wisdom of saudade, through the capacity to feel and lose yourself to that feeling of absence and of presence through absence. We were married within a year.
Once, when talking to my friend who sold coconut water along the coast, four perfect machete strikes creating my porthole to attaining peace in tropical Bahia, straw inserted into that delicious water, our traditional conversation, adapted and broadened through the most recent observations, on why women are the greatest beings on earth stopped suddenly. “Jacó,” machete paused mid-swing as well, forearm flexing to sustain the weight of the knife and the thought, “what are you going to do if you go back to the states? Nobody knows how to listen to the sound and rhythm of the coconut there, gauging its sweetness through the hollowness of sound… You learned the language of the coconut; I taught you. E agora? Olhe que vou lhe dizer uma coisa meu amigo, você vai sentir saudades de verdade, é muita saudade mesmo.’ A language developed from the coco, perhaps untranslatable, the land and coast had become part of me and my friend intuited its future haunting–the cool, sweet sound of Ijexá, wind through the coqueiros—the kind driving these words forward.
Written in English by Jacob Dyer Spiegel, this is the First of Nine Articles on “Language, Memory, & the Borders of Saudade.” There are many more articles on language, culture, and translation themes on the SiroccoBlue Facebook Page. Please check it out and “Like” it!