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

As the great translation theorist, Rosemary Arrojo, shared at a translation conference in Amherst, Massachusetts in 2010, translation is a way of living between and among languages and cultures. For Arrojo, translation is a position and movement at points of cultural intersection that is most similar to the Spanish and Portuguese word “entre,” which invokes ‘between’ and ‘among’ simultaneously.

The translator’s work entre and ability to live entre carries a universe of meaning. It is a position and process of a crossroads-esque straddling of worlds, for one, and an activity that allows one to be in multiple cultural systems, transferring meaning between them and also impacting those systems with new ideas, concepts, and voices.

Translation is the art, practice, and movement across language boundaries as well as a journey inside of those boundaries. Translation is a journey into the crossroads and the meeting-grounds of culture; a journey much like the one that memory takes. Memory’s journey is beautifully and tragically represented in the Portuguese saudade—a word whose contours I’ve been trying to trace in this series by looking at Brazilian music, moments in which the word was spoken, my own memories through musical themes that feature the word saudade or that work around that particular imprint of memory, and Bahian culturally-specific moments of remembering and re-connecting. Saudade is a tragic sense of loss, a yearning, a painful yet beautiful longing, a nostalgia of great power, a presence in absence, an elegant suffering that is at the core of our human condition, at the core of some of the most transcendental art forms like samba and bossa nova.

That the journey of memory could be inscribed in the definition of saudade—for saudade is in essence memory’s capacity to move and mark—is particularly interesting when we return to Dr. Mazen Naous’s concept of translation as mused through the Arabic word for translation, tarjama, which carries reference to biography, memoire, and memory.

In that way, perhaps in saudade there lies the aspect of translation that mirrors memory, tarjama. And, if that is true, perhaps both saudade and memory show us another way of understanding what it means to be entre (between/among) and the capacities of texts and thoughts, and what it means to journey through translation. Saudade may operate, too, as a way of explaining translation. To translate saudade, in this sense, would be to translate an aspect of ‘translation’ itself. Translating saudade, then, presses on the poetics of translation itself and perhaps for that reason, too, it is such a challenging poetic to capture and transfer.

That there may be very different experiences of saudade according to a city’s collective history as well as memory sites such as water, such as is the case in Salvador where the ocean, for many, evokes the memory of the middle passage as well as the great Orixá who presides of those watery crossroads, Iemanjá, who tens of thousands pay homage to each day and each year on February 2nd along Bahia’s coastline.

Saudades accessed along the coastline of Bahia, then, may be a different saudades than that invoked by the desert regions of Bahia and the massive urban landscape of São Paulo where dozens of communities in diaspora think ‘back’ and ‘forward’ to their homelands. It is a bit of a translation between regions of Brazil, even, if that is indeed the case. The totality of those internal monolingual saudades (Saudades of Bahia and Saudades of São Paulo, for example) construct a saudades that must somehow find itself in another word, phrase, concept, or parallel constellation of meaning.

If saudade carries meanings unique to historical experiences, if it is understood and experienced different across regions, if it mirrors a translation in those shifts of meaning and experience just within Brazil, then certainly across Lusofonia where the saudades of Fado and of Cesária Évora seems to shift. Even the word itself is spelled differently, Sodade, which is a slightly different surface figured around a common driving force of inspiration felt in similar ways yet differently across the geographies of the Portuguese-speaking world.

All of these possibilities—and they must be possibilities and not ‘definitions’ because this word is more of a culture and one that resists definition, just like memory itself resists recall and often re-codification into a common language—make me wonder about saudades itself, as a word. If the experience shifts, then what is to be said of the ‘stability’ of the word (not that it, or anything, has to be stable, especially given the memories it can carry)? If this word can move fluidly in meaning as it represents such a profound human engagement with the past, might there be a bit of ‘haunting’ or yearning (saudade itself) between the word (saudade) and that which it represents? As a word—this infamous word that many claim has no equivalent singular word—saudade takes on so many meanings and experiences that perhaps there is even a longing between the word itself (saudade) and that which it seeks to represent (the essence and constellation of paradoxical feelings of saudade).

Words themselves may never be able to define or encapsulate the range of experiences of saudade. Even saudade as a word may not be able to live up to the wealth of experience that the word evokes. And, if that is true, perhaps even that very word ‘saudade,’ as a word that stands for a much greater untranslatability (and perhaps serve as a metaphor for translation itself), the word never able to live up to this mysterious journey of memory and the feelings it provokes. Perhaps saudades as a word that stands for an emotive world that shifts according to cultural histories is itself unable to transmit the immense feeling of loss and the presence of that which is absent. Perhaps in that way even the word can be absent and present, the word itself represents the feeling of absence, the power to reminisce, the haunting of what was or what could be. Those empty spaces of the word are filled, perhaps, by very specific individual memories and the collective memories—such as in Bahia—that come out of the history and experience of specific cities.

I think the case of saudade—because it may or may not have equivalents, because it resists translation so gracefully, because resisting translation is also a matter of cultural pride built around the way memory is experienced—is one that may push us into the domain of inter-semiotic translation (translation between systems of meaning, beyond spoken/written language). Because aspects of saudade may be clearer in a cry of flamenco, that same cry that echoed across the Atlantic into samba and rumba and salsa, a sharp line and use of color in a painting, those intent on translating it may be freed by its ‘untranslatabilty’ to experiment across genres and systems of meaning.

Saudade, then, seems to beg a translation into new codes, new structures of feeling memory, new ways of expressing the immensely present absence, the elegant suffering of a cry for ‘nostos,’ a homeland, when home has been forcibly removed physically.

I close this series on saudade with a possibility that will continue on in the next posts (the series becomes borderless!). Perhaps Tarjama also means saudade—a way of experiencing one’s story (memoire, autobiography) and one’s memory fully in the present. And so what those trying to convey or render the word ‘saudade’ into another language wrestle with is a word with great transcendental meaning that translates and shifts. It is “impossible” to translate because it is translating translation itself with an awareness—through the word itself—of all that is lost, mourned, and absent, with an awareness, too, of that the translation can be as beautiful and constructive as it can be a dive into the great emptiness of sorrow and nostalgia.

In the deep cry of flamenco—one that carries duende, and duende being a metaphor used by Nathaneal Mackey to understand the impact of texts that activate the collective spirit of a people and their memory—there is a parallel structure for saudade. It is rooted in the Romani experience (one that includes Portugal, Brazil on many levels, especially in Samba). In the building of the Alhambra, there is also a parallel structure to saudade as this incredible monument was built for the future to carry the memory of one of the greatest periods of European history in Al-Andalus.

As I look for equivalent words that parallel saudades, I will also look into parallel emotive structures and art forms. To return to the first article: perhaps saudade is not translatable as a word, but rather its translatability exists as a sound, a cry for a homeland, a deep search for re-unification in the palmadas of cante jondo and the batucadas of the Ilés of Salvador opening bridges across the Atlantic.

Please join me in the search and leave comments on this series!


Written in English by Jacob Dyer Spiegel, this is the Ninth 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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