Saying "Could" in Spanish

Forms of "Poder" Usually, But Not Always, Used

Valencia, Spain, for lesson on translating "could"
Pudiéramos haber viajado a Valencia. (We could have traveled to Valencia.). Filippo Diotalevi/Creative Commons

Although the English auxiliary verb "could" is typically thought of as the past tense of the verb "can," it shouldn't always be translated to Spanish as a past tense of poder.

"Could" usually can be translated as a form of poder (a verb typically meaning "to be able"), however. Following are some of the common ways that "could" is used in English and various ways the idea can be expressed in Spanish.

Translating 'Could' When It Means 'Was Able' or 'Were Able'

Usually, you can use the preterite tense of poder if you're talking about a one-time event or a specific period in time, but the imperfect tense should be used if you're talking about an indefinite period.

  • The miner couldn't leave the tunnel. El minero no pudo salir del túnel. (The sentence refers to an ability that existed at a particular and limited time, so the preterite is used.)
  • I couldn't leave the city more than once a year. Yo no podía salir de la ciudad más que una vez por año. (The sentence refers to a ability that existed over an indefiite time, so the imperfect is used.)
  • We could always count on him for advice. Siempre podíamos contar con él para sugerencias.
  • After five hours I could finally do it. Después de cinco horas por fin pude hacerlo.
  • I thought I could do it better. Pensé que yo podía hacerlo mejor.
  • Couldn't you see the solar eclipse? ¿No pudiste ver el eclipse solar?

Although the distinction isn't always a clear one, if by saying "was able" or "were able" you mean "knew how to," the verb saber is often preferable, usually in the imperfect tense:

  • Obviously, he thought I could drive. Obviamente, él creía que yo sabía manejar.
  • We could make fantastic sand castles. Sabíamos construir fantásticos castillos de arena.

Translating 'Could' as a Suggestion or Request

In English we often use "could" as a substitute for "can" in order to be polite or to soften the tone of what we're saying. You can do much the same thing in Spanish by using the conditional tense of poder, although often the present tense works just as well. For example, to say, "You could come with me to fish for trout," you could say either "Puedes ir conmigo a pescar truchas" or "Podrías ir conmigo a pescar truchas."

Translating Expressions Such as 'If I Could'

Expressions such as "if I could" usually use the imperfect subjunctive:

  • If I could turn back time, I wouldn't have answered the telephone. Si yo pudiera regresar el tiempo, no habría contestado el teléfono.
  • If he could eat cake instead of vegetables he would be very happy. Si él pudiera comer el postre en vez de vegetales él sería muy feliz.
  • If we could see it, we would buy it. Si pudiéramos verlo, lo compraríamos.

Discussing What Could Have Been

A common way of saying that something could have been, but wasn't, is to use the preterite of poder followed by haber. If something might have occurred over an indefinite time, the imperfect might also be used.

  • It could have been worse. Pudo haber sido peor.
  • The team could have been much more aggressive. El equipo pudo haber sido mucho más agresivo.
  • With more time, we could have eliminated more of the mistakes. Con más tiempo, pudiéramos haber eliminado algunos más de los errores.
  • They could have saved my son. Podían haber salvado a mi hijo.

Translating 'Could' in Expressions of Possibility

Various expressions of possibility can often be used to translate "could" when it means that something is possible. Often the present tense of poder can be used as well. One way to translate sentences using "could" in that way is to think of an alternative way of expressing the idea in English, and then translating to Spanish. The following translations aren't the only ones possible:

  • They could be the same person. Es posible que sean las mismas personas. (Literally, it is possible that they are the same persons.)
  • It could be my imagination. Posiblemente sea mi imaginación. (Literally, it is possible that it is my imagination.)
  • I could leave now. Ahora puedo salir. (Literally, I can leave now.)
  • If we want to, we could take a walk through the city. Si queremos, podemos dar un paseo por la ciudad. (Literally, if we want to, we can take a walk through the city.)
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Erichsen, Gerald. "Saying "Could" in Spanish." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Saying "Could" in Spanish. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Saying "Could" in Spanish." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).