Being Through Words

House in Provincetown, Massachusetts, USA

My parents brought me to Canada when I was nine, and I have lived in Toronto ever since. But those first nine years of my life in São Miguel, in Portugal’s Azores islands, remain a constant reminder that my deepest roots are still Azorean and that my first language is Portuguese, even though the English language easily seduced my soul with its charm and beauty after my arrival in North America.

It is primarily through language that I have found a meaningful way to understand and define who I am to myself. When I read or write or speak in Portuguese I am accessing a part of me that is separate from my English language self. The same is true in reverse. I find it painful to recognize that I have never been able to combine both languages into one holistic and fluid expression of myself. What I experience is more like an interior move from one linguistic room to another: a Portuguese room and an English room in my mind’s house. I have tried to find a third inner room, a common room where my Portuguese-English selves can be together and co-exist fluidly and naturally, but the search eludes me, and so I continue to move from one room to the other, always leaving a part of me behind before I enter each separate space of the same house.

As palavras são a maneira mais significativa que tenho para manter a minha identidade. Words are the most significant means by which I express my identity. This is why in my writing I often feel compelled to weave Portuguese words and dialogue through my English text. I strive to merge the words from the two languages that make up my soul and define my experiences of the world as a whole person and not as a divided self.

I belong to an older generation of immigrants who share a similar saudade, a nostalgic memory. We are the collective consciousness or witnesses of another geographical place of a long time ago; we belong to the terra onde nascemos (the place where we were born) and the terra onde vivemos (the place where we now live).

I still carry many detailed recordações inside myself, and these dormant memories of my past come alive with a word, spoken or read, taking me back to a part of me that still exists in my soul. But when I try to write about these memories in English they lose part of their nuanced meaning in the translation, perhaps because inevitably the memories, like all memories, resonate with the one remembering, and so I find it easier to write about them in Portuguese because it’s the only way I can conjure up the tastes and smells and sounds of my past.

When writing about my Portuguese experiences in English I am conscious of the reader who does not understand Portuguese, and I struggle to find a way to convey these untranslatable emotions. It is a process akin to the parables in the gospels where Jesus tries to explain the kingdom of God through metaphors and images. The kingdom of God is like a mansion, a pearl, treasure buried in a field…; saudade is like missing the ocean, it’s a longing for the smells, sounds, sights, and feel of home… but we are never really able to capture the essence in translation fully.

Yet, translation is the means by which we allow others a glimpse of what the original is like. Without translation we would be impoverished in our ability to access, understand, and know other cultures and ways of thinking beyond the few languages each of us can realistically manage to acquire in a lifetime.

May Sarton, the American poet and writer, who was born in Belgium, was an immigrant, too, and she succinctly describes her challenge of translating from French into English in a way that resonates with my own experience: “Translation makes one aware of words and the value of each word. There are so many nuances. It’s fascinating to try to find an exact equivalent, and of course, there is none.” At Eighty-two: A Journal (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996)

In translating, like in the parables, we can reasonably approximate the essence if the words are carefully chosen to convey a meaning and a feeling that we can make understandable to the reader of the translated language. In my case, Portuguese into English.

There was a decisive moment in my life at the age of fifteen when speaking, writing, and thinking in Portuguese faded from my consciousness through less and less usage as English became the dominant and more meaningful language for articulating my thoughts and ideas not only to others but especially to myself, in the privacy of my own thoughts.

In Avelina da Silveira’s powerful poem on identity and language, Palavras onde me perco, I was reminded of that psychological experience in my adolescence, of leaving the linguistic world of my mother tongue behind: “Já não sonho em português.” “I no longer dream in Portuguese.” When I first read these words I cried, for they were like a stab of truth in the heart. They painfully reminded me of that inevitable moment I experienced when my mother-language receded to make room for the new language of the country that became home.

I admire people who can switch language code easily and who do not agonize about whether or not they still dream in their mother tongue. They can be happily themselves in one language or the other and even with both simultaneously. But this has not been my experience and so I rely on hope or is it simply naïve wishful thinking? that after five decades of living away from my country of origin, I will somehow still find a way of intertwining the two linguistic worlds that make up my soul into a fluid and equal expression of myself.

I strive to reclaim an inner space where I can “sonhar em português” (dream in Portuguese) once again, dive into Portuguese letters, swim in Portuguese words, and luxuriate in their Portuguese sounds as effortlessly as I do in English, that once-upon-a-time foreign language that is no longer foreign but is even more intimate, familiar, and an integral part of me than the language of my childhood.

Yet I can still be lured back to the mother tongue when the siren words of Portuguese beckon to me and then I lose myself in the words of my childhood, fico perdido nas palavras da minha infância; I dive into the infinite ocean of words, mergulho no mar infinito das palavras; I swim on the waves of a persistent longing that teases my parched soul for the past, nado nas ondas de saudade que me perseguem e torturam a minha alma, faminta pelo passado longuínquo. But I almost don’t remember the words anymore, quase que já não me lembro das palavras, so far are they from me now, tão longe que estão de mim agora, in this world, neste mundo, of English words that seduced, and mothered my Portuguese soul.


Palavras onde me perco

How I long for the days when words were essential!
Outros tempos quando a palavra encerrava uma certeza
— coeur et mots, moi même in a fabric of being.

Foi há tanto tempo que parti…
As palavras custam a vir;
como se eu as quisesse articular mas houvesse uma pedra
na garganta.

A voz lusitana escorre sem que dela eu beba,
quase alien, porque já não sonho em português.

Palavras, words, mots perdus…
Labirintos de imagens onde me perco
na ânsia de chegar à outra margem de mim.

J’ai changé le profil du jour
et j’ai perdu mon visage en ce temps,
never again myself between the sea and the maples.

Oh tragédia de imigrar, de partir sem chegar
tecendo na diáspora un être d’ici et de toujours.

Demain será un autre pays, un autre matin,
De identidade dispersa
I’ll be searching in yesterday
for the name of a water bird among the snow.

Avelina da Silveira

I am delighted that “Being Through Words” is included in Antologia Literária Satúrnia, Autores Luso-Canadianos, coordinated by Manuel Carvalho, Montreal, 2020

About thetorzorean

The musings of a torontonian azorean on identity and belonging. You can find me at
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9 Responses to Being Through Words

  1. Kathie says:

    Professor Onésimo Almeida of Brown University has pointed out that even when a word possesses the same meaning in multiple languages, what it refers to might be different:

    “…[C]ontrary to what we may think, not only is language not dissociated from other realms of human activity, it is in fact profoundly linked to them. One is the field of culture in the general sense, the one where we nowadays employ the social sciences or humanities, and which is the opposite of nature. Culture [nurture] is everything created by human beings in relation to one another and to nature. Thus, language as a human creation is also cultural. Now, in speaking a language a person does not just use an abstract code of sounds. Words and phrases refer to something, they mean something.
    “Words do not subsist in a vacuum, but indeed as images of a reality. When I say ‘house,’ those who hear me do not just hear a sound. They also visualize in their minds a certain image of ‘house.’ This image is formed in the brain from successive impressions on the retina of realities designated by houses. Thus, the image that someone from São Jorge forms of ‘house’ is not exactly the same as what an Arctic Inuit or sub-Saharan African does. The image that each forms results from the superimposition of images based on experience. In some cases it results not so much from an average abstracted by the brain as from a particular image or set of images that for some reason imprint the brain more strongly.
    “In any event, the world to which words refer is more important than the words themselves. The difference between saying ‘casa’, ‘maison’ or ‘house’ is basically insignificant. The important thing is the particularized image of the reality of “house” that each individual experiences differently. The same thing can be said of ‘avó’ and ‘grandmother’, ‘mar’ and ‘sea’, and ‘ilha’ and ‘island’. Words are like the tip of an iceberg that rises to the surface while most of it remains unseen, submerged in the unconscious…”

    Almeida, Onésimo Teotónio, Ph.D. “O Peso do Hífen: Ensaios sobre a experiência luso-americana” [The Weight of the Hyphen: Essays on the Luso-American Experience]. Lisboa: Imprensa de Ciências Sociais, 2010, pp. 46-47. Unpublished English translation by Katharine F. Baker, with Bobby J. Chamberlain, Ph.D.


  2. Carol Wells says:

    Thank you for sharing these struggles Emanuel. It must be incredibly difficult to leave your birth country and make a new life in a new country, in a new language and in a different context all together from the earliest, most familiar. You have expressed your struggle so well. Again, my thanks.


  3. Susan K. Riggs says:

    “Being through Words” is a poignant and articulate sharing of the self, a beautiful illustration of how the written word can both refine and define the contours of our being.

    While many writers relate to the feeling that our words emanate from “outside” ourselves, Emanuel Melo describes a whole new dimension—less a “room” and more an extra “suite” that co-exists with his current world, but remains frustratingly separate at the same time.

    Fortunately however, excellence exists everywhere, regardless of geography. In his case, all rooms are lavishly decorated in the rich and rewarding tapestry of prose that is enjoyed by all his readers.

    He is representative of many who have travelled the long and complex road on a diasporic journey that (perhaps) never really ends.


  4. Kathie says:

    From “Can Poetry Be Translated?” on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” April 15, 2018

    Is it possible to translate poetry from one language into another without losing meaning?
    To paraphrase Robert Frost — not really. “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” the American poet is often quoted as saying. In other words, the meaning the reader extracts from a poem can never be a replica of the writer’s intent.
    Then again, I’m just translating.
    But poet and award-winning literary translator Aaron Coleman tells NPR’s Michel Martin that the impossibility of translation shouldn’t stop us from appreciating the art of the verse. […]
    “[P]oetry — it’s as much a thing of words as it is a thing of sound” […]
    Though the art form, in translation, is subject to lose its accuracy, integrity and beauty, Coleman argues that the process invites new opportunities to parse, and thus meditate on, any lingual and cultural disparities.
    “I approach translation even knowing that it can’t quite be what it is in the original language,” he says. […]
    [T]ranslation can be transformation. “I think we all want to have translation work as a process of reproduction, but it’s really a process of transformation,” Coleman says…


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  7. Pingback: Antologia Literária Satúrnia – Autores Luso-Canadianos | Emanuel Melo torontonian azorean writer

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