Two kinds of congratulations… and how Spanish expresses them

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

For some weeks now, the air has been filled with greetings and good wishes: “Happy Holidays”, “Merry Christmas,” “Season’s Greetings” and, for a few days yet, “Happy New Year”.  In Spanish: Felices Fiestas, Feliz Navidad, Feliz Año Nuevo.champán

There’s one Spanish greeting, though, that English can’t quite reproduce: “¡Felicidades!”

Many English speakers (and even some native Spanish speakers) confuse this interjection with the similar-sounding “¡Felicitaciones!” English routinely expresses both ideas by the single word: “Congratulations!”

The felicitaciones/felicidades pair offers a beautiful example of the subtle shades of meaning that a language (in this case, Spanish) can express.

The distinction is significant: felicitación is an act of praise or congratulation, while felicidad refers to that sublime and blessed state of the human heart, happiness.

Thus a graduation, a promotion, an award, indeed any achievement or victory, merits a congratulatory “¡Felicitaciones!” (An alternative particularly common in Spain: “¡Enhorabuena!”)

On the other hand, transcendent moments of the human condition, the annual cycle, or the great life passages—the birth of a child, a birthday, a wedding, or, indeed, a New Year—inspire the warmer and more elevated “¡Felicidades!”: a wish for much happiness.

It’s fascinating to speculate on the cultural source of this distinction, absent from English. Is Spanish more emotive? Perhaps. We propose, instead, that the answer lies in a stronger sense of ritual and ceremony in the tongue of Cervantes.

¡Buenas palabras… y felicidades!


Copyright ©2013 Pablo J. Davis. All Rights Reserved. This essay was originally written for the January 6, 2013edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee), as part of the weekly bilingual column Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation/Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción.


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: 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.

4 Responses to Two kinds of congratulations… and how Spanish expresses them

  1. Pingback: Felicitaciones y felicidades: matices que importan « Interfluency: Translation+Culture

  2. Pingback: Educación: education and upbringing « Interfluency: Translation+Culture

  3. Bob Mrotek says:

    ¡Felicidades Pablo!

  4. ¡Gracias por escribir esto! Yo era muy confundido sobre la distinción entre el dos palabras.

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