“Language, Memory, & the Borders of Saudade” Series | Sixth of Nine Articles

The word nostalgia comes from the Greek “nostos”: a return, which in turn implies a place and a time, perhaps a homeland. Nostalgia, in that way, can imply a homeland one is separated from, a lost land, a condition of exile, of (forced) movement. But, of course, it also can be a fleeting emotion that registers at various levels of the heart and spirit.

This language of memory—saudade, nostalgia, and so many other words across cultures—and immensely present absence seems to be able to penetrate the most profound layers of the human condition and also, simultaneously address the more superficial aspects of loss or desire.

Thinking through the writing thus far, these different layers of contact with the word saudade which carry me into my own nostalgia and which seems to be a concept that has framed so many years of thinking without knowing it, it seems to me that nostalgia is one aspect of saudade (not that one is greater than the other). Saudade seems to carry a constellation of emotions that have their own syntax, much like nostalgia can be as deep as the homeland lost (‘nostos’), of dreamed return, of reach to re-connection, or . Perhaps saudade takes on these varying levels, as well, as it becomes such a produced word for feelings that are not as wrenching as that of loss of homeland or love.

But there are differences. Something unlived yet yearned for can become saudoso: a look of love that did not have a chance to develop, two people who did not have the chance to get know each other well enough to have a ‘nostalgia,’ but rather have a sense of tragic yearning. I can’t help but think of Batatinha, a samba he wrote of a beautiful woman he fell in love with while singing during carnival, millions in the street, his attempt at reaching to her was through the towel he tossed lovingly to her and the song:

…É a toalha da saudade
da minha infelicidade
Não me vai ornamentar
E pra não sofrer desilusão
nem passar decepção
Eu vou sambar…

Tolha da Saudade is a samba about a kind of saudade for a great love that did not come to fruition but that could (perhaps even through the music, the rhythm and lyrics became his search for the beautiful woman he could not forget).

Saudade is the essence of loss, an echo of feeling, it is the emotive home (’nostos’) in which tragic yearning becomes beautiful, elegant, proud suffering that, through its translation to grace and poise, is no longer suffering at all. It is a celebration of even the most difficult moments and that is, too, at the core of samba: a song of pain and memory turned brilliant and euphoric.

I remember hearing this word saudade on my father’s vinyl collection, the result of the film Orfeu Negro (Marcel Camus, 1959, a French film director) and explosion of Bossa Nova in the US, especially following the 1961 Jazz Festival in Rio de Janeiro, which translated itself into the Jazz tradition inspiring incredible Jazz and Brazilian collaborations and themes like “Recorda-me” and “Blue Bossa” on Joe Henderson’s 1963 album Page One:

Blue Bossa was then recorded (interpreted, re-interpreted, adapted, translated in a way, perhaps?) by Dexter Gordon (check out the incredible DexterGordon.com site and a Sirocco impressionistic Banda de Dexter Gordon, Arrasou! piece on the recent Dexter Gordon Tribute in New York City):

There is much territory on ‘translation’ and adaptations, cross-cultural musical dialogues between Jazz and Brazilian traditions that I realize I have to explore more. Much more! It is interesting to me how Stan Getz, for example, almost became Brazilian through his work with João Gilberto:

It is in that way (what I called the ‘sorte’ or luck of international record deals in the previous post in the series) that the music of Brazil—and that album was part of the collection that my father would blast on Saturdays and Sundays—became part of that small town in the middle of nowhere life and it explains how it is possible that I, ate the age of 6, was convinced that the music of Brazil was actually “mine” (even though the only thing that was ‘mine’ was probably o idioma dos cachorros, my repeating and perhaps now annoying motif).


Written in English by Jacob Dyer Spiegel, this is the Sixth of Nine Articles on “Language, Memory, & the Borders of Saudade.” Stay tuned for the next one which goes back to age 6 in nowhere EUA! There are many more articles on language, culture, and translation themes on the SiroccoBlue Facebook Page. Please check it out and “Like” it! In addition to writing projects, you can check out some of the projects that I work on as a freelance translator, translation advisor, and writing coach, all of them tied in one way or another to the movement across boundaries and frontiers that is translation and that translation opens.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s