Does 'Sí, Se Puede ' Mean 'Yes, We Can'?

More About a Common Rallying Cry Heard in Spanish

Sí, se puede  is a common rallying cry heard at pro-immigration events across the United States. Most of the news media have translated the phrase as meaning "Yes, we can."

Let's take a look at the varying translations of the phrase and how the phrase came to be a rallying cry.

The phrase gained an uptick in popularity in both English and Spanish when "Yes, we can," was adopted as the primary slogan used by the Obama presidential campaign leading up to President Obama's election in 2008 and reelection in 2012.

History of the Phrase

Sí, se puede is the motto of the United Farm Workers, a labor union for farmworkers in the United States. The phrase was the rallying cry attributed in 1972 to Mexican-American farm worker Cesar Chavez, an American labor leader and civil rights activist. He popularized the cry during a 24-day hunger strike protesting farm labor laws in Phoenix, Ariz. that restricted laborers rights. In 1962, Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. The association later became known as the United Farm Workers.

Actual Translation

Is "Yes, we can" an accurate translation? Yes and no.

Since there's no plural verb nor a first-person verb in that sentence, the typical way of saying "we can" would be podemos.

"Yes, we can" is not a literal translation of sí, se puede. In fact, we do not have a good literal translation of the phrase. clearly means "yes," but se puede is problematic.

"It can" comes close to its literal meaning but leaves out the vague sense of emphasis and completion that se provides.

So just what does se puede mean? Out of context, it would be translated loosely as "it can be done." But context matters, and as part of a group chant, the translation of "yes, we can" is entirely appropriate.

Se puede is a phrase of empowerment (puede is a close cousin of el poder, a noun meaning "power"), and "we can" conveys that thought well.

Principles of Translation

Some of the best advice for translating to and from English and Spanish is to translate for meaning rather than to translate words. Review the principles of translation, usually, there is not much difference between the two approaches. 

More on the Proper Use of Se and Poder

For a good introduction on how to use se and poder, introducing se and se in English passive voice  give a comprehensive overview. For an in-depth explanation on using the Spanish verb poder for "to be able," using poder and how to conjugate poder are helpful guides.