The Peculiar Melancholy of Nations

The Portuguese are very jealous of their saudade and you will frequently be told that the word is untranslatable. Similar claims 1 are made for Czech litost, Turkish hüzün, Ethiopian tezeta, German sensucht, Bosnian sevdah, and, for that matter, the blues. 2 They all express some sort of melancholy at the heart of the national character. 3

It is unsurprising that no satisfactory equivalent can be found for these words in other languages. After all, very few words map directly and completely onto one other word in another language and the everyday miracle of translation is routinely executed via paraphrase and circumlocution, with shims and joists precariously holding up meaning and affect, coaxing them into the target language.

What is remarkable is that of all categories of words and sentiments, it is for melancholy and its nomenclature that nations are the most jealous. Like heartbroken teenagers, they feel that their sadness is unique, that no one has ever felt this way before.


  1. 1Find quotes from each. Pamuk, Freely, Kundera, et al. The major part of this essay should be citations.
  2. 2Many of these words have an entire genre as musical cognate: fado, sevdalinka, tezeta.
  3. 3Saudade and sevdah possibly both come from the s-w-d root of أسود in Arabic, “black”.