Saudade, longing of the Portuguese

Among the world’s languages, one of the hardest terms to translate is saudade, the Portuguese word for a feeling, a longing for something or some event that one is fond of, which is gone, but might return in a distant future.

It often carries a fatalist tone and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might really never return.

Few other languages have a word with such meaning, making saudade a distinct mark of Portuguese culture. It has been said that this, more than anything else, represents what it is to be Portuguese.

“The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.” (In Portugal, by AFG Bell, 1912)

Saudade is not nostalgia. In nostalgia, one has a mixed happy and sad feeling, a memory of happiness but a sadness for its impossible return and sole existence in the past. Saudade is like nostalgia but with the hope that what is being longed for might return, even if that return is unlikely or so distant in the future to be almost of no consequence to the present.

One might say nostalgia conveys a feeling one has for a loved one who has died and saudade as a feeling one has for a loved one who has disappeared or is simply absent. In Portuguese, the same word, nostalgia, has quite a different meaning.

Saudade is what one feels towards people, places, feelings or situations in the following circumstances:

• An old way of life that is gone
• A lost lover
• A faraway place where one was raised
• Loved ones who have died
• Feelings and stimuli one used to have but which one is now tired of
• One’s lost youth

Although it relates to feelings of melancholy and fond memories of things, people and days gone by, it can be a rush of sadness coupled with a paradoxical joy derived from acceptance of fate and the hope of recovering or replacing what is lost by something that will either fill the emptiness or provide consolation.

According to historians, this word came to life in the 15th Century when Portuguese ships sailed to Africa and Asia. A sadness was felt for those who departed in the long journeys to the unknown and disappeared in shipwrecks, died in battle, or simply never returned. Those who stayed behind – the women, children and old folks – deeply suffered from their absence. There was the constant feeling of something that was missing, the yearning for the presence of the loved ones who had sailed.

A blogger, Elisa, explains it so well:

“You open an album, you read a message, you start reminiscing over a drink with your friends and suddenly there it is: you miss people (or something or a situation). In Portuguese there is actually a better word for it. It’s called saudades. The dictionary would translate it as (1) longing, yearning (for someone), fond remembrance, (2) homesickness, nostalgia.

“But it is more than that. It is this huge feeling that overpowers you and you just can’t shake it off sometimes, especially when you feel saudades of something or someone you liked it very much (a place were you were the happiest and you knew it even then, maybe).

“Sometimes missing something can’t be horrible. You cry and cry and cry… as if crying would make it go away, make you forget. Feeling saudades can also be not so bad. The feeling is also sugar-coated, you remember it with a grin, laugh about the memories and your heart is filled with this great intoxicating feeling. You feel happy that you have people and places to miss.”

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