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Saudade and Untranslatability

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

I have met many Brazilians who claim with pride that the Portuguese word saudade doesn't exist in any other language. They imply saudade cannot be translated into other languages.

Some translators seem to take this to heart. Saudade often appears untranslated in otherwise translated texts or texts originally written in other languages. In a story about Gal Costa, who passed away this week, NPR conveys thus what Gilberto Gil said about her in a recording on social media: "'Departing with her are the voice [and] the encanto do canto, which were always her trademark,' Gilberto Gil shared in Portuguese via video. 'Remaining for us is saudade, the sadness, the grief'" (NPR's italics). Note that encanto do canto is also left in the original Portuguese. It means the enchantment or delight of singing, but I suspect the translation wasn't acceptable because it would be impossible to replicate the fact that canto is contained in encanto. Yet, the phrase is translatable all the same.

Does the concept of saudade exist in Portuguese only? Here is a definition of saudade from 1. sentimento de mágoa, nostalgia e incompletude, causado pela ausência, desaparecimento, distância ou privação de pessoas, épocas, lugares ou coisas a que se esteve afetiva e ditosamente ligado e que se desejaria voltar a ter presentes; 2. [também no plural] lembrança afetuosa de algo ou alguém ausente.

In English: 1. feeling of sorrow, nostalgia, and incompleteness caused by the absence, disappearance, distance, or deprivation of people, times, places, or things one once felt affection for and attachment to and would like to have back (present) in their lives; 2. [also in the plural form] affectionate memories or something or someone absent.

Don't other people in the world experience these emotions? Of course they do. The word saudade happens not to have direct equivalents in other languages, especially if the part of speech is to be preserved. In English, there isn't a noun that encompasses the meaning of saudade exactly, but there are approximations, and isn't translation in essence an endeavor of approximation? Depending on the context, nostalgia or longing may be adequate translations. If one feels saudade for their hometown or country, "being homesick" may be suitable. If one feels saudade for a time gone by, "longing" or "nostalgia" may fit. If it isn't crucial to maintain the word as a noun, then the verb "miss" would probably work too.

In Marília Arnaud's novel Suíte de Silêncios, the word saudade appears at the very beginning, when the protagonist/narrator recalls her grandmother and her singing of the song A Saudade Mata a Gente by Braguinha (João de Barro) (1907-2006) and Antônio Almeida (1911-1985). The narrator quotes these lyrics: A saudade é dor pungente/A saudade mata a gente. In my translation, I wanted to maintain the idea of saudade as a noun to preserve the rhythm of the lines, and so I chose "longing" for saudade: "Longing is a piercing pain/By longing we all are slain."

In this song by Chico Buarque (the video is available online!), I chose to translate saudade as "missing you." And isn't the entire song a lover's translation of saudade into various iterations of that emotion?

As special as the word saudade may be to Portuguese speakers, it is not an anomaly in translation. Synonyms across languages rarely match completely in their meanings and usages. Honesto in Portuguese is used to mean an ethical, principled person, and in that sense the English "honest" would be an appropriate translation. If, howefver, we were translating "honest" in a sentence like "be honest with me," honesto would be inaccurate. Sincero is used in that particular situation: seja sincero comigo. "Honest" and honesto overlap in one sense but not another. The equivalence is incomplete.

Even a word as simple as chair--the four-legged piece of furniture--will be translated in different ways between Portuguese and English depending on what kind of chair it is. In Brazil, a kitchen or dining room chair is a cadeira, but an armchair never is: it is a poltrona. To use another object as an example: a Brazilian would never take a blanket to sit on at the beach because cobertor, or blanket, does not mean just any bed cover. It means fuzzy and warm specifically, and it would make no sense to stretch a cobertor out on the sand under a hot sun. An esteira, pictured below, is what Brazilians bring to the beach to sit or lie on, and in the absence of an esteira, a towel will do just fine. How "beach blanket" and esteira de praia are translated between English and Portuguese is up to each translator, though I would hope a translator would not say in Portuguese that someone brought a cobertor to the beach. The point is that complete word-to-word equivalence across languages is rare.

This doesn't mean, however, that words and phrases without direct equivalents are untranslatable. They can be paraphrased. Cultural references without any equivalents, in particular, can be glossed, that is, briefly explained in the text in such a way that the explanation blends in with the prose. When cultural references are layered and complex, some translators will use footnotes. If the reference is mãe de santo, for example, the literal translation "mother of saint" would not work at all. Mãe de santo is a priestess in Candomblé, a Brazilian religion of African origin, and she has a very specific role and status in the community. "Candomblé priestess" may work in some contexts--say, during simultaneous (oral) translation, when there isn't time for elaboration or explanation. In a literary translation, a translator may choose to keep mãe de santo in Portuguese and weave a definition, stealth-gloss style, into the text. There is so much historic and cultural context here that a footnote may be warranted.

Some words and phrases may be left in the original language. I recently found out "streaming" (as in, say, video streaming) in Brazil is streaming--no Portuguese word is used. I suspect this is the case because it is expedient, especially when it comes to new technology for which there are no existing terms in Portuguese. There may not be time or interest to come up with Portuguese equivalents. After all, in Brazil English lends prestige to the speaker.

Loans from the source language and words and phrases kept untranslated point to a choice by the speakers of the language and by the translator. The choice not to translate doesn't mean the word or phrase is untranslatable.

Earlier this week, Laura Nagle (Twitter handle @LauraLNagle), French- and Spanish-to-English translator, also wrote about translatability in her newsletter. She discusses it from quite a different perspective. Be sure to check it out!

Please leave a comment on this or any of my posts in the contact section of my website.

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