The Portuguese word saudade is the only term I know of whose meaning escapes the borders of linguistics and enters the kingdom of emotions and feelings. For starters it is an ambiguous term, as in it hasn't a definite meaning. Depending on the context it is used in it can convey different ideas. I have seen it translated as 'longing' in English, but even that is rather misleading as it can also signify 'joy'. Everytime I hear it, it catches me unawares in the same way someone who steps on the back of my shoe in the underground does.
In order to write this post I e-mailed my dance students (many of which speak Portuguese) and fellow dance tutors (some of which come from Brazil, Angola and Portugal) and asked them to give me their definition of saudade. I have included some of their replies below (no contribution has been altered or edited). As you will see their responses are not clear-cut and exact. And how can you be with a word whose significance is chiefly affirmed by the speakers who utilise it? And by those of us who, though not able to speak the language fluently, appreciate the feelings evoked by one of its linguistic jewels.
This is from Mireilla, a long-standing dance pupil of mine:
What about nostalgia or a yearning,nostalgic longing?
Francesca, on the other hand, has one of her co-workers help her out with my enquiry:
My Brazilian colleague says: it can mean positive but also negative feelings, such as missing somebody or something from the past, feeling blue or nostalgic. There is no such word in English.
Mariana could hardly contain her enthusiasm when she received my electronic missive:
hello, what a lovely email to receive
i'm half brazilian and half english, born in sao paulo raised in london, bilingual and work in theatre and dance. i think you touch on the wonders of bilingualism. i think i once read or someone once told me that with every new language we learn a new way to see and experience life, new ways to live and as a theatre practioner interested in multi lingual performance i discover something new in this way every day, but the best thing about it is that there is no absolute. language changes according to the meaning needed at the point in time, by who speaks it and where they are, and how beautiful is that!
anyway im sure you know or have you own views on this as a linguist, but i thought id write these words down as i feel the beauty of what you hit upon is that we dont always need to rely on one definition, conflicting and differing ones can also be valid.
Saudades Carinho and Companero are my favourite words in portuguese. Saudades to me in brief is the feeling you feel when you miss someone, therefore it can be however that feeling manifests to you.We dont have a descriptive word for that feeling in english, we have the past action i missed or i am missing which suggests the action that occurs now, and we understand the feeling associated in this way, but we dont actually have a word for the feeling, i dont think. Perhpas longing? but thats not exactly it cos it applies want, and is perhaps melancholy, with sad notionsSaudades is an arduous feeling, we love and hate, i think saudades cements what you feel for someone, your love you friendship you concern with another morfs into another version of itself whilst the other is distant. another one for you just for the hell of it, i thought i understand companero but i was being too literal.an alternative is 'the one you part bread with', few of my english, conservative, capitalist extreme friends could not get their heads around that. i guess our lived experiences no longer reflect that action so much. thank you for a lovely email and giving me an outlet to rant about something im passionate about.Zela, though not fluent in Portuguese, contributed to the discussion:
I have never spoken a word of Portuguese but now that you share this with me I think its great to know that one word could mean so much that it cannot be explained in English except that we accept it for what it is/ the feeling it brings you when you say it .....The true meaning of love is ultimately the great feelings of joy and prosperity and divine inspiration that comes with so much more that you cant quite put your finger on defining it.
Maybe it is the thought that love (Saudade) if it stands for all those things; tenderness, affection and care it is most definately overwhelmingly magnificent!
I have left for the end the reply I got from Iris de Brito, an Angolan choreographer and fellow tutor who describes this Portuguese word thus:
Saudade- You are right, its quite difficult to describe in one word.I would say it describes the act of missing someone or something, but it can also be implying a certain melancholy mixed with tenderness and love for the familiar and things we hold most dear.Its present in many songs of Fado in Lisbon, Morna in Cabo-Verde or Kilapanda in Angola, it became a word that described a longing, a sentiment deep set in our hearts.At school we were also told that this word/feeling evolved from the time of the Portuguese Discoveries when women lost their man to the sea and were waiting for them to come back indefinitely.
And in order to demonstrate with images what this word cannot explain in writing I shall leave you with a clip by the Portuguese singer Mariza singing 'Meu Fado Meu'. This is also this week's 'Song for a Winter Sunday Morning. Enjoy, com muita saudade.