Apr/May 2019 Nonfiction

How to Translate Saudades

by Lygia Ballantyne

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

Excerpted imagery from photography by Kris Saknussemm

After reading Patrick Rosal

We girls have all been told to behave. Don't speak loudly, arms off the table, don't talk to strangers. Good girls don't do this... and that... and the other. The list was inexhaustible. Enough to fill a lifetime just trying to escape. We all did, we good girls, rebel in some small or big way, with a splash or surreptitiously, faking it or flaunting it, with variable results, but we tried. I'm still trying. Looking for words with which to fly in the face of those commands. Just looking for words.

My father once told me, not without pride, the French Jesuits who ran his high school in Rio made the boys speak only the learned language of Pascal during class and recess. I forget what the penalty was for breaking into the mother tongue, but whatever it was, it worked, at least for a while, turning Brazilian boys of his day into mouth-pursing, French-spouting young men for whom everything French was de rigueur, including, if one were lucky, French mistresses.

What would he think if he saw me today, speaking this foreign language he never learned to speak? Looking in vain through the parking lots of suburbia, through malls, in online dictionaries and chat rooms, in blogs and in books for the right word with which to translate saudades. Never in singular; the word contains too much that cannot be said—like trying to describe music, its effect on the soul. Or the solitude that comes from knowing even those who love you most, have loved you longer, shared their lives with you, cannot feel quite like you do, when, for instance, you listen to a fadista wail out, in perfect pitch, the very soul of the word.

The word saudades carries the history of peoples, the tales of travels across the seven seas, the wind behind the sails of tall caravelas, the inexorable randomness of port and life, of loves found and lost, and full cargoes of regret. You will never find the exact word. You may use, instead, a string of words like yearning, regret, nostalgia, sadness, remembrance, love, and loss—and yet never capture its full meaning. But you might just feel it, someday, the power of this word, as it stands for something not exclusive to any one race or people.

The Portuguese just captured the full mood in one single, beautiful word, and made it into some sort of flag. But what it stands for, the feeling itself, that feeling is the fate of us all, wherever we may be, wherever we may come from or go to. We're all immigrants through life. There is no word for this in English. But I know where I can find it, do find it, time and again: in the silence between two notes—what Rosal calls those small provinces of silence, or the most beautiful intervals—when the music stops for a beat, one's heart stops also, like in death, and the feeling floods in.


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