Culture/Traditions

Is “saudade” really untranslatable?


The conventional wisdom is that the Portuguese term saudade doesn’t have an equivalent in any other language. But according to an entry in wikipedia, there are quasy-synonyms in several languages.

Saudade is…

According to the Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa, saudade can be described as follows (my translation):

“A somewhat melancholic feeling of incompleteness. It is related to thinking back on situations of privation due to the absence of someone or something, to move away from a place or thing, or to the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.”

Depending on the context, saudade can relate to the feeling of nostalgia or melancholy (melancolia in Portuguese), in which one feels an interior satisfaction because it is impossible to find something, but one never stops thinking that one is searching for it. It is an incompleteness that one unconsciously wants to never completely resolve.

For further information about this term, please find my other posts about it here and here.

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I list the languages  of the entry in wikipedia in alphabetical order, but a parental order among the languages would have been possible too (i.e. the Bosnian term is similar to an Arabic and Turkish term, but with different meainings. You’ll find them all listed separately).

Albanian:

In Albanian we can find a direct translation of saudade in the word mall. It encompasses feelings of passionate longing, sadness, and at the same time an undefined laughter from the same source. Other variations which give different nuances to this word are: përmallim, përmallje, etc.

Arabic:

In Arabic, the word وجد (wajd) means a state of transparent sadness caused by the memory of a loved one who is not near; it is widely used in ancient Arabic poetry to describe the state of the lover’s heart as he or she remembers the long-gone love. It is a mixed emotion of sadness for the loss, and happiness for having loved that person.

Armenian:

In Armenian, saudade is represented by “karot” (I’m sorry, I couldn’t find the right font to write the armenian term), which describes the deep feeling of missing of something or somebody.

Bosnian:

The Bosnian language has a term for the same type of feeling, sevdah, which comes from the Turkish term sevda (‘love’) via Arabic sawda (‘black’), which in Turkish means “black bile.” In Bosnian language, the term sevdah represents pain and longing for a loved one. Sevdah or sevdalinke (pl) is also a genre of traditional music originating from Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s a singing about bitterness, sadness, longing and love pain. These songs are very melancholic, emotionally charged and sung with passion and fervor.

English:

In English, the verb “to pine” or ” to long” for somebody, something or some place that you miss deeply, to wish you could be there or have it again. It’s a nostalgic yearning for something that may no longer exist.

Finnish:

In the Finnish language the term kaiho seems to correspond very closely to saudade. It “means a state of involuntary solitude in which the subject feels incompleteness and yearns for something unattainable or extremely difficult and tedious to attain”. Curiously, the sentiment of kaiho is central to the Finnish tango. Kaiho has also religious connotations in Finland, “since the large Lutheran sect called the Awakening (Finnish herännäiset, or körttiläiset more familiarly) consider central to their faith a certain kaiho towards Zion”. Saudade does not involve tediousness. The feeling of saudade rather accentuates itself: “the more one thinks about the loved person or object, the more one feels saudade.”

French:

Saudade relates to the French regret, in which one feels a hard sentiment, but in a nostalgic sense (cfr. in some dictionnaries saudade is described as “sentiment de nostalgie, du regret mélancolique“).

(La Mélancolie, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1532)

Galician:

I would like to add another term to the wikipedia list. The Galician morriña. It describes a feeling towards the place/country we come from (“Heimweh” in German), which is very melancholic. This term entered into the Spanish language through the Gallego: “Se utiliza en español en general para describir un sentimiento de tristeza por la lejanía del lugar de donde procede uno y de aquellas cosas, objetos y situaciones que lo evocan.”

German:

One translation of saudade into German is Wehmut (in Dutch weemoed), a form of nostalgia; or Weltschmerz, which is the “general pain caused by an imperfect state of being or state of the world”. Also Sehnsucht comes pretty close to the meaning of saudade. It’s generally translated with “yearning” or “craving” and describes a deep, bittersweet sense of something lost, missing, or unattainable. Sehnsucht can also have a more positive, goal-oriented connotation; “an “aspirational saudade” that may drive one to reclaim, pursue or define the absent something”.

Greek:

The Greek word closest to saudade is νοσταλγία (“nostalgia”). Nostalgia also appears in the Portuguese language as in the many other languages with an Indo-European origin, bearing the same meaning of the Greek word νοσταλγία. There is yet another word that, like saudade, has no immediate translation in English: λαχτάρα (lakhtara). This word encompasses sadness, longing and hope, as does the term saudade.

Hebrew:

In Hebrew, saudade can be translated by Ergah ערגה, which means yearning/longing/desire coupled with deep sadness.

Indonesian:

The closest word to saudade in Indonesian is galau. It describes a sad feeling or mood that is felt when we miss someone. It is apparently used by the Indonesian youth today [it would be great to have some feedback about this, maybe with some context of its use] and, although the word itself may be caused by various things – such as failing an exam – the most common causes are love-related. The person feeling galau is nostalgic as well. “It can last for hours, but it is almost always temporary.”

Japanese:

In Japan, saudade expresses a concept similar to the Japanese word natsukashii. Although commonly translated as “dear, beloved, or sweet,” “in modern conversational Japanese natsukashii can be used to express a longing for the past.” “It connotes both happiness for the fondness of that memory and goodness of that time, as well as sadness that it is no longer. It is an adjective for which there is no fitting English translation. It can also mean “sentimental,” and is a wistful emotion. The character used to write natsukashii can also be read as futokoro 懐 [ふところ] and means “bosom,” referring to the depth and intensity of this emotion that can even be experienced as a physical feeling or pang in one’s chest—a broken heart or a heart feeling moved.”

Korean:

In Korean, keurium (그리움) is probably closest to saudade. “It reflects a yearning for anything that has left a deep impression in the heart—a memory, a place, a person, etc.”

Mongolian:

In Mongolian, betgerekh (бэтгэрэх) is closest to saudade as it describes the feeling of missing something or someone very deeply. It seems that this term is also used to determine a mental illness.

Romanian:

In the Romanian language, the word dor bears a close meaning to saudade. It means “longing, desire, wanting something” and can also stand for “love” or “desire”, “having a derivation in the noun dorinţă and the verb dori, both of them being translated usually by “wish” and “to wish”.”

Slovenian:

The Slovenian language has many words espressing the feeling of “longing”: hrepeneti, koprneti, pogrešati (literally “to miss someone”), nostalgija, melanholija. The verb koprneti (“to long, yearn or languish for someone or something”) and thereof derived noun koprnenje  (“yearning”) are the closest translations to saudade.

Spanish:

Saudade is often related to the Spanish añorar, which is defined by the Real Academia Española as “remembering [or feeling] with sadness the absence, deprivation or loss of someone or something loved”.

Llamamos saudade a un sentimiento de melancolía motivado por la ausencia de alguien o de alguna cosa, de la lejanía de un lugar, o de la falta de ciertas experiencias ya vividas. Frecuentemente en plural, la palabra se usa en varias situaciones:

– estar com saudades de alguém que vive longe (echar en falta a alguien que vive lejos)

sentir saudades das ruas da cidade natal(echar en falta las calles de la ciudad natal)

sentir saudades dos tempos de faculdade (echar en falta los tiempos de la universidad)

etc.

The term can also translate into the Spanish expression echar de menos, or extrañar—roughly equivalent to the Portuguese ter saudades: “missing something or someone”: ter saudades de comer uma boa feijoada (echar en falta comer una buena feijoada)

Tamil:

In wikipedia we can find that “in Tamil, a similar feeling of love-sickness is expressed by the word pasalai.” But I found this description of the term pasalai: Female hysteria (!) “includes symptoms of  faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”.

It would be great to have some feedback about the meaning and the use of this term in modern (and ancient) Tamil.

Turkish:

In Turkish, the feeling of saudade is somewhat similar to hüzün, which describe a melancholic feeling popular in art and culture “following the fall of a great empire”. However, hüzün is closer to melancholy and depression in that it is associated with a sense of failure in life and lack of initiative.

Welsh:

Saudade is said to be the only exact equivalent of the Welsh hiraeth and the Cornish hireth. It connotes “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed”. It is the mix of the longing/yearning/nostalgia/wistfulness feeling.

In wikipedia is also mentioned the Torlak dialect of Bulgarian, “spoken today in the easternmost part of Serbia and the remote southern mountains of Kosovo”. “There is an expression which corresponds more closely to the Japanese and Greek examples, but can be compared to saudade in the broader sense of longing for the past. It is жал за младос(т) / žal za mlados(t) i.e., “yearning for one’s youth.” [Since the dialect has not been standardised as a written language it has various forms]. The term and the concept have been popularised in standard Serbian through short prose and plays by the fin-de-siècle writer Borisav Stanković born in Vranje .

Finally, it is interesting to see that saudade can be found also in Esperanto. It borrows the word directly, changing the spelling to accommodate Esperanto grammar, as saŭdado.

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I presume that there are more languages and dialects to be added to this list and all the terms would need a proper linguistical explanation (context of use etc.). I’m not proficient in (all) the languages listed, therefore I would be very thankful for any comment at the end of the post that could help to know more about those terms in the different languages. – Thank you very much in advance!

What I found very interesting in this tour d’horizon is, that the feeling of saudade, expressed by other terms, inspires musicians in several cultures and that it’s closely related to the general sentiment of fin-de-siècle (but this will be the topic for another post).

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40 replies »

  1. I was always told that everything was translatable. You might need more than one word to translate it, but you could still transmit the feeling of the word. I live in Brazil and I would say that we don’t have any one word in English that conveys the true meaning of ‘saudade’ but I can still translate it for my friends.

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    • Stephen Greene, you can translate everything by paraphrasing it. I agree with you that in English there is no word that conveys the meaning of “saudade”. There are some other languages who have words that come pretty close to saudade. I was surprised to find a word in Finnish that seems to be very similar in meaning and also adopted for the Finnish tango. I think that if a term not only translates saudade in more than one of its meanings but is also expressed by music or dance, we’re pretty close to the Portuguese saudade, don’t you think?

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  2. Yeah, Portuguese speakers are pretty proud of their language, but there are ways to translate anything. There may not be an exact equivalent word but that’s not at all unusual. I had never heard of morriña. I’ll have to ask my wife if she’s heard it.

    The word añoranzas is used to translate saudade in some of Roberto Carlos’s songs.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Roadkill Spatula. There are ways to translate everything indeed. But it always depends if the translated term covers the same semantic field and it seems to me that many of the terms in this list do pretty much cover the semantic field of the Portuguese “saudade”. – Thanks for the hint about añoranzas, I’ll try to find some examples. And please let me know what your wife thinks about morriña.

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      • Expat, you’ve a great couple of posts on this word. I never knew saudade had received so much attention. I take the idea that it is untranslatable at face value, not an expression of the semantic similarities that might come from linguistic or cultural constraints. Your descriptions above show more nuances than I would normally be conscious of. And that is why I find value in the idea of a word being untranslatable, it forces me to look at a common idea and wonder how I can experience it differently. The ideas you give above help give a structure to ways to think about this word, which also help me see it differently. Thanks for the insight.

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      • Thank you very much for stopping by and for your comment, Edward. I was just intrigued by several articles saying that there is no term in any other language that could translate “saudade”. But knowing some of the words in the list and considering them pretty close, I thought it was worth writing about it. – I’m very glad you liked the post.

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  3. i think vague à l’âme in French comes pretty close to it…? I enjoy the fact that the internet celebrates interesting words from all languages, but if I see another meme about “Waldeinsamkeit”, I will scream.

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    • Yes, suburp, “vague à l’âme” comes very close, even if it describes more the sad side of it (mélancolie, tristesse). “Waldeinsamkeit” is another word difficult to translate with only one word. I’m a linguist in my heart (and soul; well, I once worked in this field) and really enjoy this kind of discussions! Thanks for stopping by and adding this interesting comment! À la prochaine 😉

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  4. Indeed some words were really close to our word saudade, but still not close enough. You should just create a new word for it if you need the word so much or just do like our country does to most of new English words, just use it as your own. For example in Portugal leggings are leggings, there is no translation or creation of a new word for that specific case we just use it as our own.

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    • Yes, Joana, you’re right. The word that comes the closest is the Welsh hireath, but I agree with you, we can use the Portuguese saudade – I still need to decide how to pronounce it, in the Portuguese or the Brazilian Portuguese way.Personally I like the Brazilian sound of it 😉 And yes, every language has loanwords, why not adopt saudade in English? I’m in: if we use it often enough it will soon appear in the dictionaries 🙂

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  5. I grew up in Brazil, just came across this post. My one critique would be that the word “saudade” isn’t especially sad. A lot of the “close translations” seemed to dwell on the sadness & loss. And while that is a part, it’s minimal. Just my 2 cents. Very cool article, let’s adopt it to the English language. And definitively the Brazilian version 😉

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    • Thank you Sarah, for your precious insight. I know that the perception of a certain degree of sadness when talking about this term is closely related to the culture. I would be really glad if you could give me some examples where you would use “saudade”in a less “sad” or “dwelling” way. The difficulty with words like “saudade” is, that it’s difficult to describe the semantic field of it in the language it is used. Also, we can’t quantify or define degrees of sadness in a way that is universally valid for everyone. What I may consider “sad”, someone else may consider “normal”. I think that the way “saudade” is used in most of the contexts (but here, again, I can only rely on written texts and some rare oral contexts) suggests a melancholic state – and, again, I don’t consider melancholy necessarily “sad” either… – I’d be very interested knowing your opinion about this. Obrigada!

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      • Expat, following what Sarah said above saudade is not a bad feeling. I don’t think I can give you the kind of example that you asked for, but culturally, saudade is seen as something good here in Brazil. Maybe bittersweet would be a better explanation. Saudade is considered a mix of longing for something or missing something/someone with the happiness for the past experiences related to what is being missed. There is a short rhyme about it that goes like this:

        “O Destino quis um dia divertir-se de verdade,
        Uniu a dor e a alegria e nasceu uma filha: a saudade.”
        “Fate one day decided to really amuse himself,
        He mixed pain and happiness and a daughter was born: saudade”

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      • Thank you, João, for this text! I like the anecdote of pain and happiness creating saudade! Do you know where it comes from? I found many contexts where saudade is used, but didn’t find this one.

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  6. I had to point out a huge mistake in your equivalences. Most of these words have a sense of craving, desire or “wanting”, “saudade” on the other hand has a sense of “languidez, in other words someone who feels saudade does not feel necessarily compelled to search the object lost. Sometimes saudade is related with perpetual loss or hopelessness.

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    • Dear José. Thank you very much for your comment. I must disagree with you. The other words listed here do not express a “desire of wanting” or “craving”. It is more about nostalgia, melancholie. None of the words does semantically imply a “search of the lost object”, situation or person. Saudade, like all the other words is, like you say, related to perpetual loss and hopelessness. A profound sense of awareness that what has been will not come back.
      I would really like to know which words you think would imply a search of what isn’t anymore. As you might know, the interpretation of words in different languages can be slightly different for everyone of us, so I would be glad if you could point out the words you consider not “fitting in”.

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  7. keurium, dor, koprnenje, pasalai, Sehnsucht. On another note has been made an entry for saudade in the DREA (http://dle.rae.es/?id=XM6WldQ) which denotes that Saudade could not be properly translated to that language. Just as a curiosity at least in Portuguese there’s a strong difference between nostalgia and saudade, nostalgia is limited to the past and is frequently associated with overestimation. regret is very negative and as someone pointed out before saudade is kinda neutral.

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    • Dear José, thank you very much for your quick reply. This is very interesting. Concerning keurium, dor, koprnenje, pasalai: I need to believe what others say about these terms as I don’t know these languages and I’m sure a native speaker would be able to explain their semantic field.
      Sehnsucht, on the other hand, is a sort of nostalgia, you’re right, but it can also be a longing for something without necessarily wanting it. Sehnsucht is the memory of something that was (or that could be, so it can also be projected into the future).
      Yes, nostalgia is limited to the past and regret is negative. I understand that saudade is a more neutral term, but so are some of the others – to some extent. The semantic fields of the different terms mentioned in this post can’t and will never correspond 100% with saudade, and this is the crux of every translation… They all cover a part of it and give only a vague impression of what saudade means, how it is perceived by a native speaker and how it would be used. All the terms together might fill maybe 60% of the semantic field of saudade (this is only my very superficial guess), as for the 40% I suppose that only native speakers can understand the term in its full meaning.

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  8. I would say 60% is a little bit too much as there’s a note of acceptance without that negative feeling of regret that implies being powerless that only few words can grasp to an extent, Sehnsucht is usually somewhat contradictory because “the memory of something that could” be is deeply connected to regret don’t you think? What do you think about the verb “extranar” from Spanish? I feel it’s a poor equivalence yet I’ve seen some defending it., I would appreciate your insight.

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    • José, I wouldn’t consider Sehnsucht deeply connected with regret, it can be a longing only. Extranar is more a mix between “missing” and “surprising”, no? At least the way I perceive and understand it. What do you think?

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  9. It seems to me that any Portuguese or Brazilian person you ask has different but overlapping definitions of “saudade”. I agree with some of the persons interviewed that the uniqueness of “saudade” may have been invented by the Portuguese-speaking people as a myth to make themselves look emotionally unique in their own eyes. One would have to know many languages to categorically claim that they don’t have corresponding equivalents. Even the word itself (which is a general linguistic phenomenon in all languages) means different things in different contexts. It can be nostalgia for your home country, for things that used to be, a melancholy outlook on life as a mild sort of depression (the tragic sense of life), longing for things, locations, or people you’ll never have access to, etc. It never combines all of those things in the same context. Maybe one can say that this words covers many emotions that other languages differentiate with separate words, but even that is a false generalization since Portuguese has synonyms for saudade as melancholy, sadness, longing, the blues, nostalgia, etc.

    In my case, I tend to feel saudade or nostalgia for Brazil even though I’ve never been there. This emotion is primarily due to my extensive listening of Musica Popular Brasileira, which I find to be a unique expression of emotion through a fusion of melodic and rhythmic complexity not usually found elsewhere in popular music.

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