Saudade, longing of the Portuguese

AMONG the world’s languages, one of the saddest and hardest terms to translate into English is saudade, the Portuguese word for a yearning for someone, some event or some place that one was fond of, which is gone, but might return in a very distant future.

It carries a tone of resignation and the unspoken knowledge that the loved one would never return, or the place that one longs for does not exist any more.

Saudade (say “sao-dard”) is a distinct mark of Portuguese culture. In the capital city Lisbon and the other towns are statues, monuments and museums telling of those glory days when this small nation sent out its sons to discover the dangerous, unknown world. Most of the men did not return.

“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 in the good old days, but a sadness that it is over and gone forever. Saudade is like nostalgia but with the hope that what is being longed for, might return, even if that return is so remote 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 word nostalgia has quite a different meaning.

Example of nostalgia: Foi a nostalgia provocada pela carta que recebi means “It was nostalgia that was brought on by a letter I received.”

Example of saudade: Em certos momentos, tenho saudade da fé means
“So I have moments of longing or yearning for the faith.”

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 covers feelings of melancholy and fond memories of things, people and days gone by, it can be a mix of sadness and 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 to open trade routes and establish an overseas empire. 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 saudade. 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 saudade 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.”

Saudade is often expressed in Portuguese folk songs known as fado.

Painting above depicts the feeling of saudade as the sailor listens to songs of home and family that he is now leaving behind.

Oil on canvas, by Constantino Fernandes (1913), O Marinheiro (The Sailor), photo by Francis Chin, January 28, 2017, at the Fado Museum in Alfama, Lisbon. Click here to see the full three-panel painting

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O Marinheiro The Sailort by Constantino Fernandes 1913
Fado Museum in Alfama, Lisbon
Fado Museum in Alfama, Lisbon (Francis Chin, Jan 28, 2017)