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!”
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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.
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