Wednesday, 29 January 2014

'Que pena con usted; but at least I got my way'

It's not always best practice to take sayings/phrases from a non-native language, translate them into our own, and then take them literally. There are many examples in English where taking a word-for-word translation of certain expressions just doesn't make sense in other languages; 'the hair of the dog', 'beat about the bush', and so forth.
The vulture -- does it show a little more respect towards others than some Colombians?
'Que pena Mr Cayman, but at least I'd the decency to wait until you died.'

Yet the Colombian-Spanish saying of 'que pena con usted' doesn't fall into this bracket – not as far as we're concerned anyway, owing to our experiences of its use. The literal translation is 'what pain/embarrassment for (with) you'. This tends to be used in many scenarios in Colombia when, in the English speaking world in any case, the more appropriate response would be 'Sorry' or 'Is there anything I can do to help?'

Now you might say that 'que pena' for Colombians is their 'sorry' and that's what they mean when they utter it (leaving aside the fact that there is in existence a perfect Spanish equivalent of 'sorry', namely 'lo siento', – literally 'I feel it' – which many other Spanish-speaking countries have no problem using). However, as is so often the case, actions speak much louder than words.

For example, an all-too-often 'que pena' usage is when you're in the middle of asking for something at a bar or café or the like and somebody else comes along and starts barking out his (or her – and perhaps it's more likely to be a woman) order ahead of you. You politely inform him that you were there first and in the middle of ordering; cue the 'que pena' (without making eye contact) and the 'out of order' order continues without a second thought for the 'displaced'. In other words, to fit the translation, “what a pain for you indeed. But I'm happy, I've got what I want, that's the most important thing.”

You could argue that there is a freshness and even honesty in this compared to much of the English-speaking world where people sometimes use 'sorry' when they don't really mean it. However, it's fair to say, in comparison with the example above for one, our behaviour in queues is generally a little more courteous and, dare we say, correct.

Moreover, an indifferent 'que pena' is used in so many contexts where for us 'lo siento' should be the more appropriate reply backed up by a genuine acceptance of an error or misjudgement. In its absence, it really only leaves one conclusion; they don't care that their actions have impeded you.
It does seem like a case of 'sorry being the hardest word'; or just not in the vernacular, full stop.
Bart Simpson -- the 'I didn't do it kid'. He has plenty of followers in Colombia.
The 'Bible' for some Colombians?

We can't highlight all this without touching on another, what appears to be from our experiences and those of others we've met in any case, national trait. That is an inherent inability to admit culpability to anything, even if there is irrefutable damning evidence to the contrary.

In some places, putting your hand up to say you were at fault is seen as a brave, courageous step in many incidences, a display of honesty. Not so, for the most part, in Colombia. There's always some sort of excuse available, even if it happens to be about as watertight as a teabag.

Yet this doesn't mean that you can't be at fault (well somebody has to be, right?). If something unfortunate happens to you, a typical question here is 'what did you do wrong?' for it to have occurred. For example, 'it's your fault that the 'ladrones' (thieves) robbed you, you allowed them to.' No 'dar papaya' and all that (and we hasten to add, the few 'run-ins' we've had have generally been down to our own stupidity – it's not the case for everybody though). This perhaps gives some explanation as to why there appears to be at times a laissez-faire attitude towards petty crime among the locals. It happens, and if you're the victim you probably did something to allow it happen.

'Que pena con usted' indeed. Continue to throw it our way however, and the bigger 'pena' might be with you. We're too nice for that though. Plus, as we learned some time back, it's best not to take such things too seriously in these parts; nobody else appears to.


  1. Yeah the manners of many Colombians, when in a tienda of some sort, can be very non-existent. Better just to do as they do, when in Rome and such, and blurt out your order as if you're the only customer in the place! Another recognizable piece Mr Corrigan!

    1. Alas all too recognisable! You might want to look at this little piece sent to us from your fellow countryman Mr. Stam, for further 'understanding':

  2. Ay Brendan, se sentiría más extraño aún en Costa Rica, donde decimos "perdón" por decir algo parecido al "qué pena" de los colombianos... jaja

  3. Too true... Though don't forget the word 'permisso' since it seems that you can do anything you want as long as you either say 'permisso' first - or 'que pena' afterwards....

    1. Indeed -- barge your way on to the Transmilenio with a barely audible 'permisso' followed by a very 'sincere' 'que pena'. Magical!

  4. Just a couple of montha ago I found your blog by chance. What a nice change to be reading something like this instead of all the nasty things that are around about Colombia. I've been in Bogotá for a few months now and I have to say that through your blog I've come to love more my city. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Laura. Like any place, Bogotá has its ills, but it's my home these days and on balance I like it!

      Feel free to spread the Wrong Way word!