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Does “Saudade” Have an English Translation?

I've only been in Brazil for four months, and I don't speak much Portuguese (yet.) However, there's one word I learned pretty quickly, and it's "saudade." Brazilians love this word— just listen to Brazilian music and you'll hear it turn up all the time.

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If you’re not familiar with it, “saudade” means “a deep emotional state of melancholic longing for a person or thing that is absent.” This word is a fundamental part of the Portuguese and Brazilian cultures, and really encapsulates a certain Brazilian “mood.” Not surprisingly, there’s a common belief among Brazilians that the meaning of this word can’t really be translated.

Needless to say, they’re right. Let’s find out why this unique word is tough to translate!

How Do You Say “Saudade” in English?

At its core, “saudade” references the constant feeling of emptiness caused by someone or something that’s missing from your life. A big part of “saudade” is the act of wishing that the person or thing you’re thinking about was back with you.

The three verbs that make the most sense when translating “saudade” are to miss, to yearn, and to long.

To Miss (verb)

This is the most common word that expresses the idea of loss behind “saudade.” Here’s an example of how it’s used: “I really miss my grandma.”

Now, the fact that I say “I miss her” might mean that you haven’t seen her for a while, or that she passed away years ago. There’s no way to tell unless you know the historical context. “To miss” can be used for basically any noun— even things like pizza or Game of Thrones. However, you hear it the most when describing the feeling of not having beloved friends, co-workers, family members, or romantic partners around.

To Yearn (verb)

Yearning is used to describe a thing you really, really want or miss, and it makes you a little sad. This feeling of being “a little sad because of a memory or desire” is called melancholy, which is a loanword from French (more on loanwords later!)

Here’s how it’s used:

“I yearn for a better job.”

This verb is not particularly common— it’s very strong and formal, and so should only be used for important things— things you really want or really miss. Note that we use the preposition “for” with this word.

To long (verb)

Longing is another fairly uncommon but very strong word. It’s used to describe a “a yearning desire,” often associated with nostalgia, or the idea that things were better in the past. Like “longing,” the word saudade is also associated rather strongly with nostalgia— the desire to return to better times.

Check out this example:

“My mom longs to go back to the 1980’s. She misses her fluffy hair!”

We can “long to go back” to something, or “long for” the thing itself.

Of course, these three words we just discussed are verbs, and “saudade” is a noun. This means that “longing” or “yearning” (in the noun form, not the continuous) are the two most logical translations of “saudade.” However, we don’t typically say “I have a longing for some guaraná” or “I feel a yearning for The X Files” in English. Although they’re grammatically correct, these sentences would definitely bewilder a native English speaker. Just say “you miss it.”

Part of the problem with translating “saudade” is that “longing” and “yearning” just aren’t that common. We just don’t express these feelings as readily as Brazilians do! Of course, exploring the reasons behind that are a discussion for another time.

Despite all this cultural, linguistic and etymological analysis, I feel that “saudade” can’t really be translated, no matter what word we try to use. For that reason, I feel that “saudade” should become one of the English language’s many loanwords— a special word we take directly from the language of origin to fulfill a need that our existing English vocabulary doesn’t satisfy.

English Loves Loanwords

English is a patchwork of words from different languages. Even if an English-speaker has never left the country, you’ll hear them use French, German, Spanish, Old Norse, and even Japanese words on a daily basis. For example:

  • You are the proud parent of a five year old. If you’re in the United States, they’ll be a kindergarten student, which is a German word that literally means “child garden.”
  • Let’s say your child has been invited to a birthday party on Saturday. You’ll RSVP, which stands for the French phrase “répondez s’il vous plaît” and translates to “please reply.”
  • Now, you’re at the party. Everyone sings “Happy Birthday,” then they bring out a cake, and a knife to cut it with. Both of these words come from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.
  • The night is over and you’re ready for bed. You’ll definitely be putting on your pajamas, which comes from the Hindi word for “leg clothes.”

So, with all these loanwords, why hasn’t “saudade” caught on? Maybe it’s due to a historical lack of Brazilian immigrants to English-speaking countries especially when compared to people from France, Germany, India, and Nordic countries. However, considering that Brazilians are increasingly immigrating to countries like Ireland, The United States, and the United Kingdom, that seems likely to change.

In any case, maybe it’s just a matter of time before we start hearing “saudade” from the mouths of native English speakers! Let’s hope so— because despite English having several words that are similar in meaning, we frankly don’t have one that really “feels” like “saudade!”

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