Translating the English Verb ‘Would’

Verb can be equivalent of several Spanish verb forms

parasail in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Recuerdo que viajábamos casi cada verano a Puerto Vallarta. (I remember that we would travel almost every summer to Puerto Vallarta.). David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Translating the auxiliary English verb "would" isn't as straightforward as it might appear at first glance: "Would" has multiple uses—and in none of them is it readily translated as a single word. "Would" is used both to indicate tense as well as to indicate the speaker's attitude toward a verb's action. In any case, the principle of translation is the same: Don't try to translate "would" as a word; translate it for what it means.

‘Would’ in Conditional Statements

One of the most common uses of "would" is in statements of the type "if something were to happen, then something else would happen" (or the same thing in a different order, "something would happen If something else were to happen first). Nearly always, the "would" in such instances helps form the equivalent of the Spanish conditional tense:

  • Si yo tuviera dinero, invertiría en empresas españolas. (If I had money, I would invest in Spanish businesses.)
  • Si yo fuera tú, iría al hospital. (If I were you, I would go to the hospital.)
  • Rebecca ganaría una buena nota en esta clase si estudiara más. (Rebecca would earn a good grade in this class if she were to study more.)
  • Si volviera a nacer, dormiría menos y viviría más. (If I were to be born again,l I would sleep less and live more.)

It is common in both languages to make statements where the condition isn't directly stated. For example, the first two examples below are derived from the first two examples above with the condition omitted:

  • Invertiría en empresas españolas. (I would invest in Spanish businesses.)
  • Yo iría al hospital. (I would go to the hospital.)
  • Me gustaría una taza de café. (I would like a cup of coffee.)
  • Soy de los que llorarían como cuando algo muy preciado se pierde. (I am among those who would cry when something very expensive gets lost.)

It is also possible to imply conditions without using the English "if" or Spanish si:

  • El asesinato del presidente sería un crimen de guerra. (Assassinating the president would be a war crime.)
  • ¿Nos costaría mucho comer aquí? (Would it cost us a lot to eat here?)
  • Me prometió que saldría conmigo. (She promised me that she would leave with me.)

‘Would’ Referring to Past Repeated Events

Another common use of "would" is to indicate that something happened as a matter of habit or custom. Most often, you can use the imperfect tense, the past tense of Spanish that is usually used to refer to actions that took place over an indefinite period of time.

  • Durante el día trabajaba mucho. (During the day she would work a lot.)
  • Recuerdo que viajábamos casi cada verano a Puerto Vallarta. (I remember that we would travel almost every summer to Puerto Vallarta.)
  • Le exasperaban las quejas de sus hijos. (His children's complaints would exasperate him.)
  • Cuando ganábamos nadie decía nada. (When we would win nobody would say anything.)

‘Would Not’

Sometimes the negative form, "wouldn't" or "would not," suggests a refusal to do something. The reflexive verb negarse can nearly always be used:

  • Se negó a estudiar otras alternativas. (He wouldn't study other alternatives.)
  • Por eso me negué a firmar. (Because of that I wouldn't sign.)
  • Me negué a comportarme como un adulto. (I wouldn't behave like an adult.)

If "would not" or "wouldn't" is used as the equivalent of "did not" or "didn't," it can be translated using either the imperfect or preterite tense.

  • La radio del coche no me funcionó en ese momento. (The car radio wouldn't work for me at that moment. The preterite is used here because the event occurred at a specific time.)
  • Muchas veces la radio del coche no me funcionaba. (The car radio often wouldn't work for me. The imperfect is used here for a recurring event.)
  • Esa noche no salieron juntos. (That night they wouldn't leave together.)
  • Muchas veces no salían del escritorio hasta entrada la noche. (They often wouldn't leave their desks until nighttime came.)

'Would' as a Word of Politeness

Often, "would" adds little meaning to a sentence but is used to make a request polite. One way of doing something similar in Spanish is to use the conditional tense:

  • ¿Me darías un minuto y medio? (Would you give me a minute and a half?)
  • ¿Te gustaría ayudarme? (Would you like to help me?)
  • Le comprarías un dulce a su hermanita? (Would you buy a sweet for your little sister?)

‘Would’ in Reported Speech

In sentences of the type "she said she would + verb," the "would" can be translated using either the conditional or imperfect. In this context there is little difference in the two Spanish tenses.

  • Me dijo que iría al centro. (She told me she would go downtown.)
  • Me dijo que iba al centro. (She told me she would go downtown.)
  • Me dijeron que todo parecía correcto. (They told me everything would seem to be correct.)
  • Me dijeron que todo parecería correcto. (They told me everything would seem to be correct.)

Key Takeaways

  • Spanish has no auxiliary that means "would" or is used in the same way, and "would" usually must be translated using various tenses.
  • Depending on the context, "would + verb" in English can become either the imperfect, conditional, or preterite tense in Spanish.
  • If "would not" is used to indicate that someone refused to perform an action, the verb negarse can be used.
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Your Citation
Erichsen, Gerald. "Translating the English Verb ‘Would’." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 27). Translating the English Verb ‘Would’. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Translating the English Verb ‘Would’." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).