I think my favorite “untranslatable” word is the word Saudade, from Portugese. This word is so unique, so important to Lusophone culture, and describes such a specific and complex emotion, that it has its own 3,500+ word wikipedia article.
One of the briefer definitions of this word says that it is “…vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist … a turning towards the past or towards the future.” It is related to the English word nostalgia, but it is stronger and perhaps sadder than that, and also to the English verb to pine, but notice how we don’t have a noun to describe the emotion we feel when we are pining. It is yearning and longing, and missing, but it’s not necessarily all sadness: another description says that it is “the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again.” It’s a bittersweet emotion, perhaps a bit fatalistic, perhaps a bit melancholic, perhaps a bit hopeful.
Of course, I’m just an English speaker trying to grasp a word that I’m not actually familiar with. This word, and the emotion underlying it, are regarded as somehow particularly Portugese, and Brazil even recognizes Saudade Day as an official national holiday. I wonder, have I ever felt saudade? What would I have called it at the time?
I think perhaps music can hit upon this emotion a little better than my poor writing skills. What could be more perfect for songs than an emotion that combines nostalgia, love, loss, hope, and despair? Here is the great Cesária Évora performing one of her most famous songs at the age of 63 (Sodade is the Cape Verdean Creole version of the word)
When you think of musicians who tap into the more melancholic emotions, does Nick Cave immediately come to mind? He actually spent several years living in São Paulo, and he once said that the only way he could describe the emotion behind his album The Good Son was to call it saudade.
“The Ship Song” is one of the most romantic, beautiful, haunting songs I’ve ever heard, and it makes me very happy to hear it, and also somehow makes me want to weep. It’s not the words, necessarily. Do you know what I mean? Perhaps listening to Nick Cave is as close as this English speaker will ever get to true saudade.