What untranslatable words reveal about the Brazilian culture, from Brazilian author Roberto Taddei.
Illustration by Andrew Holder.
I. ONE LANGUAGE, MAS QUE NADA
You might not know it, but Portuguese is part of your daily spoken English. Many words made it into English by way of Asia and Africa—places where the Portuguese landed during the Age of Discoveries (also known as the Age of Exploration 15th-17th centuries). Albino, for instance, and Dodo from doido (crazy). Sometimes the English word retains it’s original meaning buried within, like “fetish,” which comes from feitiço (charm and sorcery).
Other words, like those for native-grown food from Brazil, came from Brazilian indigenous languages, like cayenne and cashew. Then there are culture-specific words that migrated into English as the phenomenon became popularized: samba,bossa nova, caipirinha, Ipanema (originally meaning fish-less river),“Mas que Nada,” and so on. But although these words come to represent Brazil abroad the country is much more than a bracing drink or a sexy girl.
The spirit of Brazil can be found in it’s language, but like the country, the language is remarkably diverse. As with American English, the Brazilian version of Portuguese is a mixture of languages. The Roman language brought by the Europeans in 1500 suffered a long process of accommodation along the centuries. It first encountered the Tupi language, then used all over the Brazilian coast. Later it mixed with two major African languages: Bantu and Yoruba. Two hundred years later, the entire country was speaking a new language, Nhengatu
Nhengatu is a combination of the nearly 200 native idioms of Brazil, remnants of Roman Portuguese, Bantu and Yoruba. This hybrid language was widely used, reaching nearly across the entire country. When Robinson Crusoe lived in Bahia before his shipwreck he would have spoken Nhengatu, not Portuguese.
By the end of the 18th century, Portugal decided to bring the country back to speaking Portuguese by force. But despite their efforts Brazilian Portuguese retained ethnic and cultural echoes of the country itself. One example is the use of the null subject in Brazilian Portuguese, which is very distinct from Portugal. In several cases, some particularities of Brazilian Portuguese were initially seen by Portugal as grammatical errors, such as the usage of distinct pronouns and verbal agreements. But throughout the years, these “errors” came to be reinforced by Brazilian poets and speakers as a sign of post-colonial national identity. As the modernist Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade once noted: “Tupy or not Tupy, that’s the question.”
II. THE UNTRANSLATABLES
Despite a influx of Brazilian Portuguese words into English, one word in particular has resisted eager translators—be they Nobel laureates, poets, scholars or songwriters. The word is saudade. Maybe you’ve heard of it, since saudade is used in English without translation. Considered one of the top ten untranslatable words in the world, saudade is particularly difficult because it combines several emotions at once: fierceness, longing, yearning, pining, missing, homesickness, or all or none of the above. It is so complex that when I tried to explain it to a friend once she cut me short: “I’m sure I’ve never felt saudade.”
For this reason, of the most celebrated songs in Brazilian culture, “Chega de Saudades,” has never been translated into English. But the song lyrics, roughly translated, help explain saudade in part. The lyrics were written by Brazilian poetVinicius de Moraes. They describe feeling saudades as being deprived of peace and beauty, full of sadness and a melancholy that never goes away because the poet’s muse has abandon him.
Vinicius frequently collaborated with the songwriter and maestro Tom Jobim. Tom had a country house a couple of hills away from Elizabeth Bishop and almost two decades after she wrote her “Song for the Rainy Season” he also composed a song to the Brazilian rain. “Waters of March” was created both in Portuguese and in English and yet the versions are not identical. The Brazilian version sings about the end of the summer in Rio. The English version is about the beginning of Spring in the North. Since the beginning of Spring in America (around March, the rainy season) is also the end of the hot weather in Brazil (also March, when the rains come) the translation evokes the same season of mists.
Tom and Vinicius’ collaboration resulted in many hit songs that have since become Brazilian standards. Many of their songs have bilingual versions, which helped them become popular internationally. Except of course for the elusive “Chega de Saudades,” whose message remains locked in the meaning of one untranslatable word.
In 1968, Clarice Lispector (a Ukranian-born Brazilian author also translated by Elizabeth Bishop) tried her own definition of saudade: it “is a bit like hunger. Only disappears when one eats the presence. But sometimes the longing is so deep that the presence is not enough: one wants to absorb the whole other person. This will of one being the other in a complete unification is one of the most urgent feeling that we have in life.”
As poetic as this sounds, her definition raises another translation problem. The very notion of “presence” in Brazil is also untranslatable. Like all Roman languages, Portuguese has two verbs for the English “to be”. There is a distinction between being in a physical place and being as an emotional or ontological state.
It’s not only grammar, “being” itself is also seen differently in Brazilian culture. If the Portuguese carried to the New World the cartesian definition of presence, “I think, therefore I am,” once they got to Brazil they encountered cultures who thought about “being” very differently. Anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro made a lifetime study of amerindian perspectivism and discovered that some Brazilian native groups would have laughed at the idea of “I think, therefore I am,” suggesting as it does that the condition of thought predates existence. To them, the saying would likely go “the other exists, therefore she thinks.” This doesn’t mean that they were necessarily more generous than the Portuguese. It seems like a simple construction until you compare it with “I think, therefore I am” and see that to the Portuguese existence could be proven in a vacuum, while for native Brazilians existence depended on the existence of others. In this community-based definition of existence the other would be more important than the self since it is only through the other that I can recognize myself.
That’s why we so often use the word saudade in Lispector’s way, as an urge to “eat the other,” because the closer we get to understanding ourselves the closer we get to the other, and perhaps it is only by fully incorporating the other that we can escape the existential question of whether or not we actually exist. Comparing Elizabeth Bishop and Tom Jobim’s verses to the Brazilian rain you notice that the former is fundamentally about the poet, the latter sings about the outer world.
In an informal talk with Clarice Lispector in the 70s’, Tom Jobim explained that Brazil “is a country with an extremely free soul.” This freedom encourages creative expression, but, he says, Brazil is not “a country for amadores.” The Portuguese “amadores” means both amateurs and lovers, a linguistic challenge that could get in the way of aspiring lovers themselves.
Ultimately, necessity and usage determines which words are absorbed into the culture; which we translate or use as-is (like caipirinha) and which words remain culturally specific. In Brazil there are no translations for several English terms—like commodity, online, drag queen, shopping center—which seem to be more “authentic” in their original English format since what they refer to has an American or British origin. Brazilians seem to have never needed words like serendipity or patronize, just as English speakers perhaps never needed cafuné (caressing someone’s head with one’s fingers), or safadeza (a mixture of shamelessness, naughtiness, debauchery and mischief), both used on a daily basis below the Equator.
The more we know a language and its speakers, them more we understand their national culture. As Salman Rushdie writes in his novel Shame: “to unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words.”
– ROBERTO TADDEI is a writer and journalist who studied creative writing at Columbia. He lives in São Paulo and is adapting his first novel from English into Portuguese