Could I, would I, should I join the dance?
When you are winging it, one of the hardest areas to cope with is finding French equivalents for the words in the title – so frequently used in English, and yet so varied in the flavour they give to what you are saying. And, of course, for each flavour French has a different tense or usage.
Take can and could. In French pouvoir implies a real capability or possibility. We tend to say I can see or I can hear, which is how we talk about the senses, I see being restricted to predictions and that kind of thing, and I hear being about the latest bit of gossip. I can see is really a substitute for I am seeing. The can is a sort of slip word to make it smoother to say. When the French say Je peux voir or Je peux entendre, they are either peering into a fog, or are celebrating regaining their sight or their hearing. Je vois or J’entends is normally enough to express what is coming into their eyes or ears. This absence of pouvoir extends across a fair number of verbs of perception or understanding where we use can. When we ask Can you swim? the French will say Savez-vous nager? They don’t want to find out if you are capable of swimming – almost everyone is – but if you know how. Pouvez-vous nager? might be something you’d shout when someone in a wheelchair has rolled off the end of the pier. Does their impairment prevent them?
Can is difficult from a tense point of view, too. Unless you resort to the verb to be able, there is a degree of ambiguity about both can and could. I can receive him now, and I can do that next week refer to two different points of time, the first now and the second in the future. So can may go into French as present tense peux – Je peux le recevoir maintenant or future tense pourrai – Je pourrai le faire la semaine prochaine – especially as French is much more meticulous about tense use than English is. He asked if I could do that easily reports Can you? and/or Will you be able to?(Il m’a demandé si je pouvais le faire/si je pourrais le faire facilement.) The could could be imperfect or conditional. Could you open the window? is matched, for once, in French with the conditional Pourriez-vous ouvrir la fenêtre?, softening the request rather than asking about the person’s capabilities, or is the window out of reach?…
Will can be awkward in a different way. You can emphasize a request in English, or frustrated instruction, by adding Will you (please) bring me a bottle of gin. Will you do as you’re told! There is no future in any of this – you want it done now. In French, you will see Veuillez in front of a request – the classic letter ending Veuillez agréer, Monsieur… or Veuillez fermer la port – Please accept…. Please shut the door! In the politest way you are exhorting them to want to do whatever it is. Or are you trying to impose your will on them? A parent wanting her child to be quiet will say Veux-tu te taire! – literally Do you wish, i.e. Will you be quiet!
The word would is also full of ambiguity. Is it conditional – If I saw him I would say hello – Si je le voyais je lui dirais bonjour, or a past habit – On Saturdays I would go to the sweetshop to spend my pocket money – Le samedi j’allais à la confiserie dépenser mon argent de poche, or is there real will-power there – He wouldn’t do as I asked – Il ne voulait pas faire ce que je lui demandais de faire, or I pushed very hard, but the car wouldn’t move – J’ai poussé très fort, mais la voiture ne voulait pas bouger ? And of course you have the polite use – I would like an ice-cream, please (no future or conditional meaning here – I want it now!) Je voudrais une glace, s’il vous plaît.
Should has its own set of ambiguities. Its core meaning in modern English is to express a moral obligation – rather like ought. Shall and should used to be used mainly for the first person (here we go!) in the future (with should in the conditional), which used to go I shall sleep, you will sleep, he/she/it will sleep, We shall sleep, you will sleep and they will sleep (especially if he goes on like this!). There used to be an old joke about an English professor who got it the wrong way round when he fell in the river and said “I will drown and nobody shall save me!” and because he’d said I will – an expression of intent – and nobody shall – a third-party command – they left him to drown. He should have said “I shall drown and nobody will save me” – a simple prediction of the future, so it was his own fault! It wouldn’t happen nowadays, as both would be shortened to ‘ll – I’ll and nobody’ll…
Going back to modern English, should would normally be translated by devrais with the right ending, just like ought to. But should doesn’t always mean ought. Should you do this, you would get into trouble. There’s no obligation there, so devrais is not the right way to put it in French. It’s the same as saying If you did this you would have problems – Si vous faisiez cela vous auriez des ennuis. The should is a hangover from the subjunctive in English. It’s matched in French to some extent, as when you have two conditions, the second one has a que instead of si and the verb in the subjunctive. Si vous achetez le ticket et que Jean ne vienne pas, je le payerai. If you buy the ticket and Jean doesn’t come, I’ll pay for it. Let’s not go there this month! But I hope that we might soon!
But whenever you want to put across in French one of these words, you need to think exactly what you mean in that context – is the would or should just a tense marker or is there real will-power or obligation involved. If I am thinking can or could am I talking about real ability or is it an English slip-word – Am I saying I can really hear or am I saying I am hearing…? As in all this, it’s the thought that counts!