I’m having trouble understanding the meaning of the last sentence in French. More specifically, how to translate the "pouvait" has me stumped. My translated sentence does not seem to make much sense as is.

Man A: So you two haven’t broken up yet?

Man B: Of course not! Why did you think we have?

Man A: Je ne sais pas... Ça pouvait ne pas être évident au premier abord.

[ Man A: Oh, I don’t know... That might not be obvious at first glance. ]

  • I think it's just an idiom, and a better translation would be: "That can be non-obvious at first glance."
    – elias
    Jul 29, 2016 at 3:32
  • 1
    @elias it's not an idiom, it's usual plain French.
    – None
    Jul 29, 2016 at 5:51
  • "Ça pouvait ne pas être évident" uses a past tense. Your suggested translation is in the present. It doesn't work. You can say say "It may/might not have been obvious."
    – MorganFR
    Jul 29, 2016 at 9:50
  • Thanks, everyone. @MorganFR If the sentence uses "pourrait", how should the English translation change accordingly? "Ça pourrait ne pas être évident au premier abord." = "???" I'm totally confused here.
    – Segwayinto
    Jul 29, 2016 at 12:47
  • English and French do things differently. English uses auxiliaries for most of its tenses, and those auxiliaries change according to the tense. In French, a verb has but one auxiliary (for the most part), that you conjugate. In your example, "pouvait" -> "pourrait", you conjugate the verb. In English it'll be the auxiliary that will change from "may/might" -> "could". I understand your confusion as the languages are fundamentally different in that regard. The new French version is no longer in the present. Therefore "have been" doesn't work. "It could be not obvious (or antonym of obvious)..."
    – MorganFR
    Jul 29, 2016 at 12:55

4 Answers 4


Ça pouvait ne pas être évident au premier abord.

Well, it is not an idiom, but it is not easy to understand at first glance ^^.
Let's go step by step.

1st Step

Ça n'était pas évident au premier abord.

Quite simple to understand and to translate :

It wasn't obvious at first glance.

2nd Step

Ça pouvait ne pas être ...

The key to understand your sentence is to understand the modal pouvoir. Pouvoir translates the possibility in its broad sense : the right/conditions/probability to do something.

The following precise which modality is concerned. If something peut ne pas être or peut être, (regardless of the tense), that means the object is undefined, so the only modality you can use is the probability.
Keep in mind that the translation for maybe is peut-être.


The modal to use is may, affirmative mode.

It may
It might

Finally, use the first step gives the following of the sentence.
EDIT : past and negative mode.

... not have been obvious at first glance.

  • The suggestion doesn't work. The French sentence is in the past, the English translation is in the present (it might not be obvious right now). "It may/might not have been obvious..." is more appropriate.
    – MorganFR
    Jul 29, 2016 at 9:53
  • @MorganFR Right, i forgot the tense.
    – Charly
    Jul 29, 2016 at 10:06

The sentence is a bit complex here. I like your traduction and as a french person, i would have understood the same idea with your english sentence than the french sentence.
(Btw, IMO, the french sentence is bad)

Let's change the sentence to make it easier to translate :

1) Ça pouvait ne pas être évident au premier abord

2) Cela pouvait ne pas être évident au premier abord

3) Cela n'était pas évident au premier abord

What we lost between 2) and 3) ? Pouvait . It means the possibility, the capability. It was possible that it was not obvious. But as you see the idea of possibility is not require (even in french). It adds no usefull information.

So, according to me, pouvait is useless here and should not be translate. But if you need to keep this information about the possibility, IMO, your translation is fine.

  • Pouvait is not useless, it tells there is also an uncertainty about the fact that was not obvious.
    – jlliagre
    Jul 29, 2016 at 10:34
  • You are right. It add an idea. But according to me, this idea is useless. Between "possibly not obvious" and "not obvious", well for me it's like "Aujourd'hui" and "au jour d'aujourd'hui", pleonasme. But it's an opinion, not share by everyone it seems. I gave all the tools to PO to be able to have his own opinion Jul 29, 2016 at 13:00

The sentence is correct casual French, a formal form would have just replaced ça by cela.

I would translate it by:

I don't know... It might not have been obvious at first sight.

but "at first glance* is fine too.

ManA wrongly thought ManB had broken up with someone else and is surprised because it wasn't obvious that they were still together just by looking at them.

He is however softening his sentence by doubling the uncertainty of the non obviousness.


it means "could".

I don't know... that could be obvious at first.


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