Translating ‘May’ to Spanish

Different meanings require different approaches

Cozumel beach
Posiblemente vayamos a pasar nuestra luna de miel a Cozumel. (We may spend our honeymoon in Cozumel.).

Grand Velas Riviera Maya / Creative Commons.

The English auxiliary verb "may" is commonly used in at least three different ways, and each of them is translated to Spanish differently:

When ‘May’ Expresses Possibility

Probably the most common use of "may" is to express possibility. In this way, the meaning is often roughly the same as the auxiliary verb "might." This can be translated in different ways, but typically the Spanish would require the use of a verb in the subjunctive mood. Note how there is no single word in the following sample sentences that means "may." The sentence in parentheses following the Spanish translation is a literal translation of the Spanish and should have roughly the same meaning as the original English sentence.

  • They may make a new version of the book. (Es posible que hagan una nueva versión del libro. It is possible that they will make a new version of the book.)
  • She may be pregnant. (Es posible que esté embarazada. It is possible that she is pregnant.)
  • There may be more than one for each person. (Tal vez haya más de una para cada persona. Perhaps there is more than one for each person.)
  • We may go to Cozumel for our honeymoon. (Posiblemente vayamos a pasar nuestra luna de miel a Cozumel. Possibly we will go to spend our honeymoon in Cozumel.)
  • There may be 50 million of us in 2015. (Quizá seamos 50 millones en 2015. Maybe we will be 50 million in 2015.)
  • She may not leave. (Puede que no salga. It can be that she doesn't leave.)

A key, then, when translating to Spanish is to think of an alternative way to get the idea of "may" across. You can find other ways of translating this usage of "may" in this lesson on translating "maybe." Note that in most cases there are several translations that would work, so your choice often will depend on context and the tone of voice you wish to use.

When ‘May’ Is Used Used for Asking Permission

"May" is commonly used when seeking permission to perform such action, or when giving permission. Generally, the verb poder gets the idea across well:

  • May I go to the concert tonight? (¿Puedo ir al concierto esta noche?)
  • Yes, you may go. (Sí, puedes ir.)
  • May we get more information about our account? (¿Podemos obtener otra información sobre nuestra cuenta?)
  • If you have any questions, you may call me. (Si tienes preguntas, puedes llamarme.)

Although in formal English speech a distinction is sometimes made between "may" and "can," there is no need to make such a distinction in Spanish, as poder functions for both meanings.

The verb permitir can also be used:

  • May I smoke? (¿Me permite fumar? Literally, am I permitted to smoke?)
  • May I visit the house? (¿Me permitieron ustedes visitar la casa?)
  • May I leave tonight? (Me permites salir esta noche.)

When ‘May’ Expresses Desire

Although not especially common, "may" can be used to express a wish or desire. Sentences with that usage typically can be translated to a sentence beginning with que followed by a verb in the subjunctive mood:

  • May he rest in peace. (Que en paz descanse.)
  • May you live for many more years. (Que vivas muchos años más.)
  • May you have many more years of life! (¡Que tengas muchos años más de vida!)

Sentences such as these can also be translated using ojalá que.

  • May it rain tomorrow. (Ojalá que llueva mañana.)
  • May you have many children. (Ojalá que tengas muchos hijos.)

‘May’ in Sayings

Some set phrases have meanings that often can't be translated word for word and need to be learned individually:

  • Be that as it may. (Aunque así sea.)
  • Come what may. (Pase lo que pase.)
  • Devil-may-care attitude. (Actitud arriesgada/temeraria.)
  • May I help you? (¿En qué puedo servirle?)
  • We may as well study. (Más vale que estudiemos.)

The Month of May

The Spanish word for the month of May is mayo. Note that in Spanish the names of the months aren't capitalized.

Key Takeaways

  • When "may" is used to indicate that something is possible, the translation often uses the subjunctive mood.
  • When "may" is used for seeking permission, it can often be translated using a form of the verb poder or permitir.
  • When "may" is used to express some types of desire, it can often be translated using a sentence that begins with que or ojalá que and is followed by a subjunctive verb.
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Erichsen, Gerald. "Translating ‘May’ to Spanish." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 27). Translating ‘May’ to Spanish. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Translating ‘May’ to Spanish." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).