Friday thought: Why “See you Monday” ≠ “Hasta el lunes”

All over the US on a Friday like today, millions of people are wishing co-workers a good weekend and saying “See you Monday.” What if you wanted to say it to a co-worker from Mexico, Colombia, or Puerto Rico—in Spanish?  Translating directly from English, you might say, “Nos vemos el lunes” (literally: We’ll see each other on Monday) or perhaps, a little more freely, “Hasta el lunes” (Until Monday).

But to most Spanish speakers, those phrases will sound a little threadbare.  Something is missing… But what?

Just three little words:  “Si Dios quiere.”  This is how a large proportion of Spanish speakers would utter the common end-of-workweek farewell: “Hasta el lunes, si Dios quiere.”  Si Dios quiere: If God so wishes, or, in more idiomatic English, God willing.

So why is this phrase so important?  Is Latin American and Spanish culture so much more deeply religious than that of the United States? Do most Spanish speakers live in constant fear of accident and illness? Or could it be that the phrase isn’t really that important? Perhaps it’s just a little remnant, a cultural tic whose meaning is lost. Perhaps it’s like saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes, a gesture without real import.

I suggest that it’s more than that… quite a bit more.  The key lies in the discomfort that most native Spanish speakers tend to feel when they hear the phrase uttered without those three little words. It’s hard to put that discomfort into words: perhaps it’s that the phrase sounds too self-assured, too smug… too proud. Overconfident. Perhaps even a little impious, a little blasphemous. Who knows what Monday will bring? Who knows what the future has in store? Keep in mind: this is almost never a conscious thought.  Rather, it’s a deeply held, almost entirely unconscious standpoint towards life.

A close relative of this phenomenon is found in the common conversational exchange of inquiring after one another’s well-being.  “¿Cómo estás?” (How are you?) is most frequently answered not simply with “Bien” (Fine) or “Bien, gracias” (Fine, thanks), or even “Bien, gracias ¿y tú?” (Fine, thanks, and you?)—but, rather, “Bien, gracias a Dios” (literally: Fine, thank God).

These phrases wouldn’t sound natural in most everyday English-language contexts.  In certain settings it might, such as a religious community.  There, something like, “Fine, praise God!” is not unusual.  If we think of older generations—perhaps our grandparents’ generation, or that of their parents—we may also remember hearing phrases like this in English. In rural and small-town settings, folk(sy) expressions like, “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise” are still fairly unremarkable.

In ordinary, spoken English, though, responding to “How are you?” with “Fine, thank God!” makes the asker wonder if the other person has just survived an auto accident, a serious illness, or some other ordeal. Try the thought experiment yourself: or better yet, do an actual social experiment and reply, “Fine, thank God!” to the next person who asks how you are doing. Watch that person’s face and you’ll very likely see surprise or puzzlement.

Ultimately, these three little words (“Si Dios quiere” and “Gracias a Dios”) suggest a lot about what it’s like to live in the culture that Spanish language expresses.  The feelings about the world, and the premises underlying those feelings, are different.  To those who have grown up bilingual, and carry in their bones the sensation of moving back and forth across cultural boundaries—what I call Interfluency, the name of my translation and cultural-training company—there are subtly, but unmistakably, different ways of being alive in the world on one or the other side of the boundary.

In English, particularly US English, there is a confident, even bold attitude towards the future and an expectation of success. In Spanish, by contrast, there is at least a gesture of humility, a small linguistic ceremony of respect in the face of life and its uncertainties.  If this attitude can be called religious, it certainly does not belong to any one church or denomination.  “God” may be thought of as the deity or simply as a way of talking about the unknowable.

For those interested in exploring these issues, I recommend Javier Villatoro’s lovely and perceptive essay, “Dios mediante: la percepción cultural del futuro en la lengua española”—of which I only became aware as I was finishing these lines.

More broadly, I would point readers to the wisdom in the Spanish master Miguel de Unamuno, and particularly in his Tragic Sense of Life (El sentimiento trágico de la vida, first published in English translation in 1921). For me, “Si Dios quiere” has something to do with the tragic sense—tragic not in any morbid or pessimistic way, but rather in a recognition of life’s uncertainties and human limitations.

Those uncertainties, those limitations somehow find little place in contemporary US English with its sleek surfaces and aerodynamic speed. But their recognition still breathes in the very pulse of Spanish, and to have grown up in that language is to feel that recognition.

“Si Dios quiere”—like the largely passé English God willing, the Portuguese (Spanish’s fraternal twin) Se Deus quiser, the Arabic Inshallah (whose direct descendant, “ojalá” is still deeply entrenched in contemporary Spanish), the Hebrew and Yiddish Halevai—can be seen, then, as bearing witness to a deeply rooted view of life.

That it’s more than a mere verbal formula, more than an empty gesture, is borne out by the unease most people of Latin American or Iberian birth or origins feel at the bare brashness of an unqualified “See you Monday!”

*   *   *

Thanks for visiting.  Your thoughts on what’s written here, whether of the ‘Amen, brother!’, the ‘I agree in part, but I wonder if you’ve considered…’ or even the ‘You’re crazy!’ variety, are very welcome. Please comment, and if you find time spent at this blog worthwhile, please consider subscribing. Nos vemos pronto: See you again soon… si Dios quiere.

Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, received his graduate training in Latin American History at Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities and a Certificate from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina; his undergraduate studies were at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is Principal and Owner of Interfluency Translation+Culture, delivering seamless, world-class translation and interpreting to the legal community and other professions, as well as innovative, interactive, and inspiring cultural-awareness training.

About Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, ATA Certified Translator (Engl>Span) and Supreme Court of Tennessee Certified Interpreter (EnglSpan), offers world-class Spanish/English language services including translation, interpreting, copywriting, and editing in both languages. His specialties are legal, business, medical, and humanities/education; he has wide experience in other fields as well. Also offered: interactive and transformative cultural-awareness training for companies, non-profits, communities, government agencies, institutions of faith, and other audiences. (See just a small sampling of testimonials from happy and satisfied clients: interfluency.com/testimonials.html) The ability to move effectively from language to language - which necessarily also means moving between cultures - has likely never been at a greater premium than it is in today's world. That ability is what we mean by Interfluency TM.

3 Responses to Friday thought: Why “See you Monday” ≠ “Hasta el lunes”

  1. s. r.davis says:

    So, I have, for quite a while, been aware of and intrigued by the phenomenon that is at the core of this delicious little essay. For years, I noticed it in passing, with strangers and or near-stranger acquaintances, and attributed it to religiosity of person or at least the culture from whence came these people. Then, I became aware of its durable persistence with my son’s nanny, an educated Salvadorean who ever time, without fail, I say hello, or good morning, or bye bye as I leave for work…I hear the same entreaty at the end: gracias a dios.

    Just yesterday, I had two patients from South America. One was from Chile and the other was, I believe, Colombian and I noticed essentially the same thanks God at the end of the response to both how are you and my wish for them to have a nice weekend. Mind you, some of these people may be quite religious, but others, I know for sure to be at best, nominally religious.

    I found this essay interesting and the approach to the intersection amongst linguistics-culture-religion. It is fascinating and demonstrates something that goes well beyond the core effect of religion on world view or even cultural linguistics but on one,s humility or the lack there of in the face of life’s vagaries and vicissitudes.

    Thanks for the insights.

    .

  2. Micah says:

    I asked every Spanish speaker I know and they all told me I would sound like an old woman if I added “si Dios quiere” to the end. Just trying to save anyone who finds this page some embarrassment.

    • Pablo Julián Davis says:

      Haha, great comment, ¡gracias Michah! Yes, what your friends told you would almost certainly be true. Of course, my essay is not meant as a “how to” for foreigners learning Spanish, but rather an observation on the deep cultural logic behind a widespread (though likely in gradual decline) habit of what is still in my view a majority of people in the Spanish-speaking world. Undoubtedly, you are less likely to hear this the younger, the more middle/upper class, the more urban, the more formally educated, the more globally-travelled, etc., the person is. If this is not something you were raised with, it’s hardly going to sound natural if you force yourself to say it. But you may find that certain life experiences, and being part of certain communities of speakers for a prolonged period of time, will rub certain habits off on you… and in some contexts the “si Dios quiere” habit could still be one of them.¡Saludos! – Pablo Julián

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: