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

It becomes apparent that I’m not able to write chronologically (nor in one language) about this word saudade because it takes me back in time, to the first experience hearing and learning the language in Bahia, to classrooms where I would talk about the word at the University of Massachusetts, to Salvador, all of the moments referring to each other. There are endless reflections and memories as the past translates itself into the present: the journey of saudades. And perhaps in order to ‘define’ this word and consider its translatability, one needs to journey into memory. It must become a personal journey, in other words, because saudade is the fabric of one’s relationship to the past, the essence of the constellation of forms that memory takes for that individual, perhaps for that city of people.

The word is a kind of map to me, a journey into (and with) the language that has now become my chosen language, at times, to write and speak in not because I “dominate” it (as the verb goes and as the applied linguistics folks declare it) but because I like the way it takes hold of my mind and puts it next to the ocean.

When I hear Portuguese, especially the Portuguese spoken in Salvador, I also hear the musicality of some of the planet’s most incredible musical forms. I hear in the voices of passerby a trace of Gilberto Gil’s cry for unity in “aquele abraço,’ batucada pounding and the loving embrace of Bahia, “é o mesmo traço que a Bahia já me deu.”

I hear the voice of Maria Bethânia calling to the Orixá Ewá in As Ayabás, the sound of love itself in the voice of Martinho da Vila who calls upon us all across all languages known and unknown, “canta, canta minha gente.”

I hear the beauty of transition and of the sunset in the the call of tristeza não tem fim. Samba is also a prayer to the sea, I was told in Bahia, the waters from which it was born. The language of that prayer is a form of longing and often with distant lands in mind (’nostos’) and certainly with memory and the experience of remembering close.

Let me return to Bahia and the words that so many people shared with me, especially when Samba was being played near the ocean…

“Samba is a prayer to the sea and was born in the sea,” I was told in Bahia by numerous people, over a long period of time, “and in its core is the cry to all of the lives of African people who died in the ocean during the middle passage.” Se você ama a música, as pessoas te falam a sua historia, te explicam o porque você sente a tragedia e a procura da saudade na melodia. Samba is a deep call of mourning and of loss, of tragedy and memory. It is an expression of the pain of memory and it can also become an experience of great beauty: the paradox is part of what gives Samba its force.

In certain forms and spaces, Samba calls down the Caboclos and—through the Caboclos, the Orixás—so they can speak across the waters and across realms, giving warnings and counsel, offering a bridge to the ancestors in what the great historian and poet Kamau Brathwaite might describe as a “Legba Xperience” and constant crossing of waters and connecting of Africa and the Americas (figures who “dance on the waters of our consciousness”). Samba, Samba’s prayer, and the ocean are gestures and spaces of memory, the waters of Bahia can evoke a longing and calling of the ancestors, of West Africa, and of the mother of the Orixás. Longing, mourning, embracing memory, and living in a way—with the ocean in front of you—that opens a home for that memory inside of you, feeling presence in absence: these aspects of saudade, given the African history (and present) of Bahia, may be experienced differently there.


Through the writing of this series, especially the last article, I realized that saudade is immensely personal, even defining this undefineable word requires a look at your own lived-experience with the word and with all that is memory. Saudade is an internal relationship that provides an outline for how people live with memory and there are many aspects of it (nostalgia may be one aspect of saudade). There may also be a regional experience of saudade, as in Bahia, a city of waters where the memories of crossing waters translate in great strength and where the Orixás of crossing and of the ocean are so much a part of daily public life. Salvador where tens of thousands greet Iemanjá on Febuary 2nd, where thousands of Ilé’s continue their religious practices and preserve the legacy.

In one word, though it may be an experience from the depths of the human ‘condition’, saudade may or may not have equivalents. Its translatability into one ‘equivalent’ word, then, may require several words, a sound, or a gesture. But it seems that saudade does not necessarily fully translate into ‘saudade’ itself, even within Brazil, where regional memory and people’s relationship to memory through land and water, may shift and where the embrace and understanding of saudade then also shifts. Saudade of Bahia’s capital, with the memory of the middle passage close, with the waters framing the city of Salvador, may be different from that of the desert region of Bahia, and from the immigrant enclaves of São Paolo that point to Italy, Japan, Brazil’s northeast, Turkey, Portugal. So what does this say about translation and, more specifically, the borders of saudade and its translation? That will be the subject of the final article in this series.


Written in English by Jacob Dyer Spiegel, this is the Eighth 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! 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.



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