How To Translate the Auxiliary Verb "Might" in Spanish

Verb Often Conveys Idea of 'Maybe'

several Spanish-language books
Quizás yo lea un libro. (I might read a book.). Photo by Nacho; licensed via Creative Commons.

Here's a question from a reader:  

"I wanted to say to someone that 'I might read a book.' I was speaking about getting a little bit of free time and what I might do with it, but none of the sample sentence constructions that I could find use the words 'might' or 'may.' What would be the proper verb tense?"

Answer

This is one of those cases where attempting to translate the words directly into Spanish isn't going to work. Spanish doesn't have an auxiliary verb that means "might" or "may," so you need instead to translate for meaning. And translating for meaning rather than word for word is never a bad idea!

In the sentence you gave, the meaning is the rough equivalent of "Maybe I will read a book." Two common words for "maybe" are talvez (often spelled tal vez) and quizás (often spelled and/or pronounced quizá). When speaking of a future event, these words are typically followed by a verb in the present tense of the subjunctive mood. So the sentence can be readily translated in this way: Tal vez (yo) lea un libro or quizás (yo) lea un libro. (The yo is optional, depending on whether the context makes clear you are talking about yourself.)

"Maybe" here can also be translated by the phrase puede ser que, which literally means "it can be that." Again, this phrase is followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood: Puede ser que (yo) lea un libro.

At least two other words meaning "maybe" are also sometimes used in the same way: posiblemente and acaso. The informal phrase a lo mejor also can mean "maybe" or "perhaps"; it is typically followed by a verb in the indicative (not subjunctive) mood: A lo mejor leeré un libro.

In other types of sentences where you're translating the English auxiliary verb "might," the meaning of the sentence is the determining factor. Following are some examples; note that the translations given are not the only possibilities:

  • She might have read it. Es posible que lo leyera. (Literally, it is possible that she read it.)
  • She might have got lost. Es posible que se haya perdido. 
  • It might be true. Tal vez sea verdad.
  • He asked if he might eat. Pidió permiso para comer. (Literally, he asked for permission to eat.)
  • I might have guessed. Podría haberlo sospechado. (Literally, I could have suspected it.)
  • You might take a sleeping pill. Podrías tomar una pastilla de dormir. (Literally, you could take a sleeping pill.)
  • I might as well study. Me convendría estudiar. (Literally, it would suit me to study.)