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In every language there are words that are simply untranslatable. Saudade is one such word, and perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon.
In any attempt to translate saudade into English, some or many of the following words will frequently appear: longing, hope, fatality, nostalgia, yearning, missing, fondness, endearment, loneliness, feeling, emotion
Here’s my best attempt to translate saudade: the feeling of missing something you love while knowing that its likelihood of return is unknowable and entirely left to fate.
Undoubtedly valuable in our effort to understand such a beautiful, sweeping and culturally significant word is its cultural, rather than etymological, origin. It is very telling that saudade came from such a maritime culture as the Golden Age Portuguese. Imagine the wives and children of the sailors who leave and are at sea for long, mysterious periods of time. Sailors’ families were perhaps the first to feel real saudade, not knowing if their loved one would ever return, but also being proud of their spirit and accomplishments.
In Brazil itself, imagine the immigrants coming to Brazil and leaving their native homelands behind, never to return, but also never relinquishing their love and devotion to their origins. In more modern times, think of the poor farmers who left the Sertão during the great droughts and moved to Brazil’s modern urban centers in searchof a new way of life; they feel real saudade, hoping, praying, and singing about one day returning with the rain to their native farmlands in the north of the country.
To understand another culture is to explore these words, these cultural truths for which there is no translation, though they remain knowable through imagination, emotion, experience, and love.
ps. Wikipedia agrees that saudade is ‘generally considered one of the hardest words to translate,’ though their definition of the term is certainly quite solid.