Saudade: the untranslatable word for the presence of absence

Michael Amoruso

I pray for friends I’ve lost, family, like my uncle who passed away,’ Bruno told me. We were chatting in the nave of the Church of the Santa Cruz of the Souls of the Hanged, a small Catholic church in central São Paulo. Built near the old city gallows, regulars go there to pray to the dead. ‘When I’m here, I feel well,’ he said. ‘I even feel that the other side is well.’ Bruno told me there was something special about the place, that it left him with a ‘sensation’. ‘The fact that you’re remembering, recalling someone that did right by you, it leaves you with even more saudade,’ he told me.

Saudade is a key emotion word for Portuguese speakers. Though akin to nostalgia or longing, the term has no direct equivalent in English. As the Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil sings in ‘Toda saudade’, it is the presence of absence, ‘of someone or some place – of something, anyway’. One can have saudades (the singular and plural forms are interchangeable) for people or places, as well as sounds, smells, and foods. One can even have saudades for saudade itself. That is because ‘it is good to have saudades’ (é bom ter saudades), as the common saying goes. There is a certain pleasure in the feeling. Though painful, the sting of saudades is a reminder of a good that came before.

Writing in 1912, the Portuguese poet Teixeira de Pascoaes defined saudade as ‘desire for the beloved thing, made painful by its absence’. It is an acute feeling, often described as occurring in the heart. The language of saudade is evocative. Portuguese speakers complain of ‘dying of saudades’ (morrendo de saudades), or wanting to ‘kill saudades’ (matar saudades) by fulfilling desire. Though hyperbolic, the word’s morbid poetics throw light on how affective ties make for a meaningful human life…