I like when I listen to the National Anthem ceremoniously. I halt, then look to the nearest flag and sing it. Maybe that’s elementary school nostalgia, when hearing it was mandatory. But I take pride in knowing the full-fledged Anthem by heart and getting its meanings over a listen.

Working in Rio’s Carnival Parade for some years, I often heard the National Anthem many times the same week.

— —

It’s curious how exercising interpretation on just about anything goes right through each one’s own personal (and often unconscious) background.

The first time I heard Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”, back in 2008, I was skeptical. I took with chunks of salt anyone willing to mainstream themselves on minorities since suddenly minorities were cool. It took me a while to accept that The Big Bang Theory wasn’t a geekwash or that Lady Gaga’s relationship with her Little Monsters was authentic. Also, Glee.

But back to Perry’s: the first time I listened to it I thought it was the identity crisis of a gay boy “transgressing” his sexuality. Not about a straight girl discovering herself homo or bi-curious.

“I kissed a girl and I liked it
The taste of her cherry chapstick
I kissed a girl just to try it
I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it
It felt so wrong
It felt so right
Don’t mean I’m in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it
I liked it”

Imagine the chorus being sung by a boy and marvel at how provocative the story becomes, almost an inside-out satire of moralism. That doesn’t happen in the original probably because female homo/bisexuality is fetis-I mean, tends to be more accepted among Western civilization than male’s. The 00’s had so much potential. It’s not even funny.

Likewise, I listen to Nirvana’s “About a Girl” as a battle of wits between a couple. Or a would-be couple. I don’t know. But tell me how those two stanzas aren’t the inner thoughts of two people realizing their situation:

“I need an easy friend
I do, with an ear to lend
I do think you fit this shoe
I do, won’t you have a clue.
I’ll take advantage while
You hang me out to dry
But I can’t see you every night, free…
I do…”

To me, it’s a song about brutal, selfish honesty. It’s about loneliness, self-awareness, control and acceptance. Not the song’s original meaning, but that’s the funny thing about exercising interpretation: you listen to what you want to hear.

Which reminds me of a very particular perk of linguistics: every single language in human history developed itself as a way to serve the cultural needs and interests of their speakers.

There’s a reason why some words are virtually impossible to translate. Humans need to name that which they know. If that they don’t know, well then, no names required. The problem arises when something exists for one group but doesn’t for others.

The most classic example in the Portuguese language is saudade.

It’s very, very hard to explain to a non-native that saudade isn’t exactly homesickness or longing. There are a few records dating as far back as the Reconquista, but saudade as the word we know is believed to have come from the Portuguese sailors’ wives of the Age of Discovery. It was what they felt while their loved ones jumped on caravels bound for the New World. It was the hope/angst blend of living through that kind of long wait without any return guarantees.

Portugal, however, wasn’t the only kingdom to set sail. Spaniards, French, English and Dutchmen all had their fair share of sextants and compasses. And even so, saudade still is an untranslatable Lusophone word, exclusive to the point of becoming a metonym of Portugal itself: a country whose national spirit winds the Sebastian dream of recovering its former glory.

Exact translation sometimes is impossible because sometimes words are conceived in situations very specific to a few selected speakers. An irreproducible spacetime, and one that doubles down when it comes to feelings — there are words in languages elsewhere meaning almost the same as saudade does, but not in English. It’s a feeling that native English speakers didn’t need to resort to as we did, historically speaking.

I like how saudade is a word so closely connected to the Homeland ideal because, ironically, I don’t feel it when I’m abroad. When I return, I unclog my ears in an attempt, at the peak of my emotional effort, to listen to the resounding shout coming from the placid shores of the Ipiranga.

I’ve listened to a lot in its place. I’ve listened to plenty of odes to joy. I’ve listened to the children of the fatherland chanting the arrival of their day of glory. I’ve listened, and yet do in its endless echoes, to the waving of the star-spangled banner over the home of the brave.

Working in Rio’s Carnival Parade for some years, I often heard the National Anthem many times the same week.

Serving the cultural needs and interests of Portuguese language speakers, “to hear” and “to listen” can be used interchangeably as synonyms.

They are not.

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I try to write about games, psychedelia, the persistence of memory and failed attempts at being a better person. I often fail.

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