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.
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.