Summary of the Saudades Series

For those of you just joining, I will try to summarize the main points from the series on the Portuguese word, “saudade.” Though the goal was to trace the contours of this word-cultural universe that seems to be at the core of Brazilian national pride and explore the possibilities (or impossibilities) of its translation, the writing took me in unexpected directions.

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Fado in the neighborhood of Alfama, Lisboa

The series began by attempting to highlight the importance of saudade as not only a feeling of loss, mourning, and the tragic yet elegant brutality of memories lived fully in the present, but also as an ability to surrender to, an openness and willingness to feel that may be part of the ‘definition’ of a Brazilian way of being. I tried to gesture at the presence of this word saudade across the Lusophone world to show its importance and also to highlight how interesting it is that this word is thought of as a Brazilian concept that may only exist in Brazil (and actually, because many believe that the word exists only in Brazil, or only in Portuguese, that this constellation of memory and feeling can only be accessed by Brazilians or Portuguese-speakers).

I ended up concluding that having a word for an experience may facilitate the communication of nostalgia and provide a common language to discuss the impact of memory on our lives, but the torment of nostalgia inherent in saudade seems to be part of a human condition and the haunting capacity of memory. Just because other language-cultural systems may need more words to describe the constellation of feeling that saudade encompasses does not mean that people from those cultures cannot feel the same yearning: it may just need to be expressed differently, and perhaps not with words but the cry of flamenco, a color, a phrase, a chord progression.

One of the articles plays with the idea, indirectly, of what a “Portuguese-speaker” is, especially when Portuguese is the official yet second language of many countries, when many learn this incredible language as ‘foreigners,’ and when the northeastern Lusophone United States (New Bedford, Fall River, Cambridge, Ludlow, Newark, Pawtucket) has its own experience of memory embedded in language, a saudade passed down through generations.

After an exploration of my own childhood via the Brazilian music that my father would blast during the weekends—the gift of the classic film, Black Orpheus, and carried to the U.S. market through Luiz Bonfá, Tom Jobim, and many other greats as well as the exposure that incredible jazz-bossa nova recordings brought to Brazilian music in the U.S.—I realized that some of the best memories from childhood came through that endlessly positive sound. Because I had been asked so many times “Why Brazil? Why Portuguese?” when living and working for so many years in Brazil, I had to tell the tale of the music charting my destiny in Portuguese. (I’ll try to translate that one of these days but I found it hard to write about my first contact with Portuguese and with those musical artists—artists that I would follow in São Paulo and Bahia, 15 years later—in English). It was during the writing process that I realized, too, that all of those great musicians I would hear on the weekends, my father’s record collection in the middle of nowhere USA, were working with the theme of saudade and even calling out that very word. I had been listening to this word since the days of language fascination began, I realized! The music itself, then, may have created a structure for feeling saudade in that Brazilian way, or at least a predisposition to it (or maybe it just meant that I would some day write about it).

It seemed that the only way to discuss saudade and memory was to include my memory of the sounds of Brazil that made it to that dead end, dirt road at a bend in the river. By exploring those sounds and those musical traditions, by thinking about the years of work and study in Bahia, it occurred to me that the collective memory of a city could structure a ‘definition’ of saudade that is unique to a specific region or geography, especially if the land or water is itself a kind of memorial or memory site. To experience loss at the waters of Bahia de Todos os Santos at the Solar da Unhão may be a very different type of remembering than the saudade lived in the desert region of Bahia, and even more so when compared to the saudade felt by Lebanese, Japanese, Turkish, Jewish, Romaní, and Italian immigrant communities of São Paulo.

This possibility of multiple experiences of saudade triggered by different histories and different places of remembering is an idea that I will continue to build upon. It seems that even within Brazil, saudade may be defined differently according the structure of collective memories. The sea and landmasses that serve as memory sites or places of remembering is tied to the cultural history of specific cities. For that reason, there may be many “definitions” of saudade across such a diverse country, definitions that begin to vary even more across the Luspohone world (in Cabo Verde, it is spelled Sodade).

Another article in the series considers these many ‘definitions’ (or perhaps ‘understandings’) of saudade as a kind of language of memory, a lexicon of memory. In that way, given it is very possible that the saudade of Salvador is not the same saudade as Fado’s call to the past echoed in Alfama, the very word saudade starts to resemble a translation. To translate a translation—the title of the series working with the translatability of this word and cultural universe of memory—is tricky territory. But more interestingly, the possibility that saudade is always a kind of translation across Lusofonia opens up terrain on translation itself when one considers Dr. Mazen Naous’s work on the word ‘translation’ in Arabic (“tarjama”). Tarjama invokes biography and memory. By looking closely at saudade as a microcosm of translation (even monolingual translation) we come to a concept of memory that seems to participate in the meaning of the Arabic word ‘translation.’

This connection between saudade, memory, and translation—saudade becomes a road map into the translative—will be part of a much longer writing project and, in all honesty, I had no idea that this would be part of the writing on the word in the series (I was more interested in the idea that saudade can only exist in minds and hearts of Portuguese speakers).

I’ll be writing a few articles on wind and then a longer series on the incredible film Vengo, by Tony Gatlif, which stars the great flamenco dancer Antonio Canales. Memory, in this film that moves across the Sirocco region and employs Sirocco symbols, is the driving force that unites the living and dead and penetrates the depth of cante jondo as a medium between physical and spiritual realms.

***

Thank you to all of the readers of the Saudades series! Please Like the Facebook Page so I can update you on the next Sirocco Blue developments which include a forthcoming article on different ways of approaching translation (African American Review), a recent radio interview, short stories involving (in?) dog language, and more multilingual poetry. You can also see the main site for information of translation and international education consulting services.

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