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The untranslateable

Some words in other languages don’t translate well, if at all. Nevertheless, they can still pack quite a punch.


ciclo musica gotico hombre soledad nostal pixabay Steve Latham


Two words which stay in my mind are, respectively, the Japanese term ‘Wabi Sabi’ and the Portuguese expression ‘Saudade’.

Each expresses something unique, which we in English can convey, but never quite capture fully; but it helps us with some very deep aspirations.

Wabi Sabi means sad. But not just as an adjective. It refers to a feeling that is also beautiful, lonesome, full of longing, yearning.

It also does not need a subject. A man, alone in a beautiful, isolated, valley, might exclaim ‘wabi sabi’.

Is the man sad, or the valley? Is it a subjective emotion, which he is experiencing; or an objective characteristic of the location?

It can also allude to aesthetic qualities, of design for example: using simple, rustic materials. As such, Wabi Sabi represents a distinct aspect of Japanese culture itself.

Saudade, similarly, possesses ambiguity and imprecision; a term, which everyone understands, but which nobody can fully explain.

ciclo noche luna nostalgia pixabaySaudade mean ‘missing you’. But, especially in Brazilian Portuguese, it contains a metaphysical hinterland to it.

I can say to someone, perhaps on Facebook, ‘saudade’, because I haven’t seen them for a long time; a simple level of meaning.

But this feeling of intense sadness and longing may also come to designate an entire mood, philosophy, or ambience.

Perhaps this is something peculiarly Brazilian, hence the intense emotion witnessed in their musical and mystical creations. Such mood-words encapsulate the feeling of an entire culture; not just asserted by outside observers, like myself, but picked by insiders to characterise their distinctiveness.

Both Wabi Sabi and Saudade seem, to me, to express an intense sadness and longing. I don’t think we have an equivalent in English.

Pesimismo soledad tristezOur western culture, through the media-saturation to which we are subjected, actually seems to deaden such feelings.

We fear becoming depressed, so we anaesthetise ourselves, through self-medication: whether via drugs (prescribed or otherwise), booze, TV, or internet games.

Thus the creative possibilities of negative emotions are lost; for it is the inexpressible longing, yearning, of the heart, which gives rise to creative movements in art, music, religion and spirituality.

We need to be unhappy, to be sad. Only in this way does the infinite desire for completion raise its head in our hearts.

When we realise that there is nothing which can satisfy this deep desire, then we reach out for the ‘something more’, the beyond, the transcendent.

Lugi Guissani called this a structural disposition of the soul, when we become conscientised, aware of the constant gap between our desire and any possible historical realisation in experience.

Ciclos de esperanza tristeza melancolia pixabayOur existential condition is also an essential condition. Everything necessarily falls short of our expectations.

But this is not a cause for despair. Instead, it can spur us on to the ‘more’, to let the longing lead us onwards and outwards.

Where Freud described melancholia as incomplete mourning, this is rather an incompletion oriented towards the future.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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