Instead it’s a very polite way of saying “I’m sorry”, frequently heard from service workers like waiters when something goes wrong for the customer.  I’ve had a waiter say it when I dropped my own money and he picked it up for me, just the other day when a waitress forgot half of my order and left me waiting twenty minutes for it many a “qué pena” was heard (they made it right, even got some free brownies out of the mix).

A common variation of this is “qué pena contigo/con usted”, literally meaning something like “what a shame with you”, but it implies culpability for said shame on the speaker.  Everywhere else, as best I know, it just means “what a shame” – if you search the phrase on Reverso Contexto those are the only results you get except for the very last one (that means least frequent in the results) where it shows “I’m sorry”.  So if you actually wanted to say “what a shame” in Colombia you’d probably go with either “qué lástima” or “qué vergüenza”.

Check out the below video (it’s in Spanish, auto-generated subtitles are available and decently accurate) where a Panamanian television presenter talks about the Colombian phrases and words that stood out to her when she recently visited the country (it’s in Spanish, auto-generated subtitles are available and decently accurate).  The first one she mentions is “qué pena” but the whole video is worth a watch.

Important (and quick) side note before we end!

If you’re reading this you’re probably learning Spanish at a beginner or intermediate level, and if so could I recommend you quickly check out a site called Yabla? They teach you Spanish using videos made by and for natives (e.g. TV shows, movies, YouTube videos, cartoons, news and documentaries originally made in Spanish-speaking countries for native speakers) coupled with a set of tools specifically designed for that purpose which are integrated into the video player:

  • Verbatim subtitles in Spanish shown at the same time as English subtitles (you can turn either or both on or off)
  • An integrated dictionary and flashcard system that both automatically looks up a word in the subtitles when you click on it as well as adds it to your flashcards for later review
  • Exercises and quizzes about what you just watched that make you apply the new Spanish you just learned.

Check it out here (discounts for educators and institutions, by the way, I know a lot of you are teachers) or read my full review if you’d like more information (and screenshots of the system) first.

Ok, hope that helps some of you all, and if anyone’s planning on going to Colombia shoot me an email (andrew -at- traceylanguages -dot- com), I’m just wrapping up three months here and would be happy to answer any questions you have.



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