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One last article from Josef Butler, whose year on the Island has come to an end. Thanks for the articles you have sent in the past, and hope to see you in Madeira again in the future.

Translating Saudade

When attempting to pick out the particularly characteristics of a nation of people, often the easiest way is to follow the study of linguistic anthropology. This study examines the way language, and by extension communication, both shapes the way individuals interact and reflects the social identities of the people who use that language. By picking out the unique words of a language we can learn a lot about the nature of the native speakers. A classic example would be the German schadenfreude, which expresses the joy one takes in the failures of others. Anyone who has spent any time fruitlessly arguing with German tourists over pool-side reservations will recognise how this word reflects their national character. English has its own examples, chiefly in the application of the word bollocks. In British English testicular references carry a very different meaning to American English, or the equivalent in Spanish or other European languages. The indignation associated with the word, the refusal to accept the opposite view, is reflective of British interpretation of masculinity. Rather than as a show of bravado or courage, it speaks to the Englishman’s need to never be proven wrong, or at least to be seen not to have been taught a lesson.

For the Portuguese, the anchoring, unique word is saudade. The Oxford Dictionary defines saudade as the ‘feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament’, and it is commonly translated to missingness. The first use of the word can be traced to the 13th Century Ajuda Songbook, a collection of poems popular within the court of King Denis of Portugal, however it is believed that the word entered Portuguese common parlance during the Age of Discovery. During this time Portuguese sailors would embark on arduous journeys to discover new lands, the first of which was Madeira, in 1419. Madeira was followed by other Atlantic settlements, such as the Azores and Cape Verde, before Portuguese ships ventured south of the equator, reaching Africa and the Americas, most famously and significantly landing in Brazil in 1500.

As a consequence of these journeys many Portuguese had to leave their homes for extended periods of time, often never to return. This provides a more tangible context to saudade. If I can become terminally depressed on the three hour EasyJet flight from Gatwick to Madeira, I can spare a thought for sailors circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope. But the sailors also left behind loved ones, which is how the word truly caught on. This also gave rise to the notion of matar as saudades, the need to kill, or put to rest, these emotions. This yearning to overcome the melancholy of good times gone by has a universal appeal, but became particularly popular in Portugal during the economic malaise of the Salazar dictatorship.

Today the idea of saudade is most commonly understood, particularly by tourists visiting Portugal, through its role in Fado music. The traditional Lisbon Fado, which originates from the early 19th Century, is melancholic Portuguese folk music that typifies the meaning of saudade. The genre itself may not be a direct response to the experience of Portuguese sailors during the 15th and 16th Centuries, as it is believed Fado in part was inspired by Morna, the native music of Cape Verde. Likewise, the typical Coimbra Fado speaks far more to the academic experience of the students of Coimbra University than to saudade. However the prevailing popularity of the original Lisbon Fado in its shared mood with saudade is an important aspect of the Portuguese national character.

While it would be unfair to apply the label of saudade to all Portuguese people, in my experience the sense of longing and the frustration over the fading of regional traditions is palpable in Madeira, as is the appreciation for Portugal’s golden era. In terms of Madeira’s expatriate community, it’s harder to apply the word. It seems difficult to long for the provincial towns of Britain from Funchal or Machico. However for the legions of holidaymakers who travel to the island each year, spending all too brief a time here, the popular translation of missingness feels appropriate.


About the Author

Josef Butler is a tour guide and editor working in Funchal. For more information on tour guides visit madeiranheritage.pt or call +351291705060.