“Saudade, saudade. Nothing more that I can say says it in a better way.” The artist Maro sang these lyrics while representing Portugal in the annual Eurovision song contest in 2022. These lyrics in particular acknowledge the difficulty of making a concept with a high degree of cultural connotations from the artist’s home country accessible for an international audience where most contestants sing in English, the continent’s lingua franca. It’s yet another example of the challenges facing countries looking to preserve national identity, particularly European ones, while simultaneously participating in a global forum that can only function if a certain degree of standardization is in place. Said differently, the less cultural context required, the easier it will be for an international audience to appreciate an exported good or idea. There is a reason that countries like Italy, France, and Germany have gained international notoriety for certain exports, even to the point that they have become synonymous with the countries themselves. After all, it isn’t hard for one to appreciate a mouthwatering slice of pizza, a luxury French handbag, or the engineering excellence that goes into the making of a German automobile.
While perhaps lesser known compared to the prior examples, Portugal holds an impressive status as a key contributor to global trade. Some examples of its contributions include the invention of the famous winemaking technique used to create Port, or its status as the cork capital of the world. However, the country’s greatest export may not be a physical good at all, but rather an emotion. The word saudade has found its way onto many a language blog, where it is often described as a quirky Portuguese word with no direct translation. Spend some time in Portugal and you may become aware that saudade is much more than a linguistical fun fact in guidebooks for tourists or language nerds. Rather, saudade is a complex emotional state that permeates myriad aspects of Portuguese culture. For anyone wishing to understand Portugal or the rest of the Portuguese-speaking world, familiarity with saudade is a requirement. So, how might us outsiders go about understanding this untranslatable word? Since the word is untranslatable, a useful starting place will be to dive into the many different ways it’s been defined, and some of the more common expressions using the word. Also, it will be essential to understand the relationship between saudade and the famous Portuguese music genre, Fado as well as the influence popular musicians from other parts of the Portuguese-speaking world have had in expanding the reach of the term.
When looking up saudade, you will find no shortage of foreign language blogs explaining that there is no suitable translation for the word. Years of poets and historians have all defined the term in their own way. The historian Aubrey F.G. Bell describes saudade as:
a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present.”
This definition speaks to the abstract space and time of the emotion, whereas the Brazilian actor Miguel Falabella’s definition focuses on the diversity of subjects to which one can attach the feeling of saudade.
Saudade for a brother who lives far off. Saudade for a childhood waterfall. Saudade for the flavor of a fruit never to be found again. Saudade for the father who died, for the imaginary friend who never existed . . . Saudade for a city. Saudade for ourselves when we see that time doesn’t forgive us. All these saudades hurt. But the saudade that hurts the most is the one for someone beloved.”
The most concise definition can perhaps be attributed to the writer Manuel de Melo, who labeled saudade as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”
Pain and pleasure are often thought of as two sides of the same coin. Pleasure being the alleviation of a pain. The more acute the pain, the greater the pleasure. Common linguistical expressions that include saudade seemingly take on a similar dichotomy. There is the common expression “me causa saudade,” used when something, somewhere, or someone is causing the speaker a certain suffering due to their absence. There are many further sayings that can generally be classified as riffs from this expression, each a little more specific. Some examples are “saudades da minha terra natal” (saudades for my homeland), “saudades de quem partiu” (saudades for those who have gone), and “saudades do pasado” (saudades for the past). On the flip side, perhaps the most commonly used expression, “Matando saudades,” refers to the removal of saudades, just as pleasure is often brought about shortly after the alleviation of pain. It is mostly used when one reunites with or spends time with someone that they have been missing, essentially curing the saudades that were felt in their absence. As Falabella’s definition shows, it can also be used when one is reacquainted with a place or activity that they missed.
Any understanding of saudade would be incomplete without at least an elementary awareness of the Portuguese musical genre, fado. The word fado comes from Latin fatum meaning “fate” or “destiny”. The genre originated in Portugal in the early 19th century but was popularized roughly a century later during the early to mid-20th century by Amália Rodrigues, known as the queen of Fado. In every fado performance, there is a fadista, usually a female vocalist, whose lyrics are accompanied by a Portuguese guitar and a classical guitar, often taking place in dark taverns in Lisbon’s older quarters. The music is characterized by an exaggerated expression of sadness, usually centering around one or multiple saudades expressed by the lyrics. For example, in Amália Rodrigues’ famous song Fado da saudade, she sings,
Oh, my pain, without your bitter mourning,
I could not sing as I sing, In my embittered corner,
Oh, my love, you are now what I suffer and cry?
In the end, I now adore, it is for you I sing fado.”
While fado deserves credit for further embedding saudade into Portuguese culture, other musical genres have been similarly important for popularizing saudade in other parts of the Portuguese-speaking world.
Cesaria Evora was a Cape Verdean singer and songwriter from the island of São Vicente. She released over 20 albums, toured extensively, and earned several recognitions including the Latin Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. She gained fame for her distinct style which blended traditional Cape Verdean morna with diverse influences such as Portuguese fado. Because she made frequent visits to Portugal, whether to play concerts or work with record labels, her music has distinct ties to Portuguese influences, particularly saudade. This is evident in many of her famous songs. For example, Petit Pays, expresses the concept of saudade da minha terra (saudade for my homeland)
Oh so much homesickness…
Homesickness without end
Little country I love you so much
Little one I love you so much”
Even more directly linked with saudade is one of her most popular songs titled, sodade. The difference in spelling can be attributed to orthographical differences stemming from the Cape Verdean dialect. Like Petit Pays, the song speaks of a longing for her homeland, as well as for a certain someone since departed from her life. The word sodade is changed to “longing” in the English translation of the lyrics.
Longing, longing, longing
for my homeland of São Nicolau
If you write to me, I’ll write to you
If you forget me, I’ll forget you
Until the day you return”
While Cesaria Evora did much to popularize the term on the African continent, many Brazilian musicians also invoked the concept frequently in their music, perhaps few more famous than Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and João Gilberto. Best known as two of the forefathers of the Bossa Nova genre, they often incorporated concepts of saudade into their music. One well-known example is the hit song, Agua de beber, which speaks of a love so intense it’s like drinking water:
You know I always felt so certain
The well of love would leave me dry
And so this sadness is my burden
It’s just too much for one heart to carry inside”
The two often worked together, co-writing and co-performing many of their hit songs. In Chega de Saudade, they sing of a painful longing that has set in from the absence of a lover,
This longing must stop
The truth is, that without her
There’s no peace, no beauty, only sadness
And this melancholy, that will not leave me
That will not leave me, not leave me”
As so much of Jobim’s and Gilberto’s music remains popular into present-day, it is of little surprise that their interpretations of saudade have endured.
After visiting Portugal, many outsiders experience an epiphany of sorts after exposure to saudade, finally recognizing emotions that were previously undefined. The psychologists Yu Niiya, Phoebe Ellsworth, and Susumu Yamaguchi suggest that emotions named by a language may act as magnets for emotional experience, attracting undefined feelings toward well-known concepts. The feeling of saudade appears to straddle the border of both positive and negative emotions. Anecdotally, it has been described as a sense of longing for something lacking in the present moment that causes unease or discontent while simultaneously causing a bittersweetness or even a somewhat enjoyable nostalgia. To this point, how one interprets saudade can be as important as the presence of the feeling itself, it might even signal one’s coming of age; a discomfort in youth, followed in maturity by an acceptance or even enjoyment of the feeling. One’s assimilation of saudade calls to mind one’s experience with drinking coffee. The first time usually requires heavy amounts of milk and sugar so as to reduce the drink’s bitterness. Over time as one grows accustomed to the flavor, they may no longer need these dilutants, with some even graduating to even more bitter versions like espresso. Though possibly hyperbolic at times, the different shades of sadness invoked by saudade cast light on how close emotional ties make for a meaningful human life. As the popular saying goes, “é bom ter saudades” (it is good to have saudades).
Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer