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The English expression "could have been" has (at least) two meanings:

  • Someone "could have done" something, but in reality didn't.
  • Something "could have been" the truth, but we don't know for sure whether it is.

What is the appropriate translation of each meaning?

An example of the first meaning is

He could have done much better on the exam.

Is the correct translation the following?

Il aurait pu faire beaucoup mieux sur l'examen.

An example of the second meaning is

A: The cat is dead. Do you know who killed it?

B: I'm not sure. There are several people who could have killed it. I think Pierre could have killed it. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he was actually the one who killed it.

Is the correct translation the following?

B: ... Je pense que Pierre peut avoir tué le chat. En fait, je ne serais pas surpris(e) s'il était effectivement celui qui l'a tué.

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    I'd use the conditional for the second sentence too: Il pourrait avoir tué le chat. – Archa Jan 1 '17 at 14:18
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    To do better is an idiom (could have done better). To do something (could have done something) is just a verb. Fyi, it's: faire bien mieux à examen. – Lambie Jan 1 '17 at 17:00
  • Present and conditional are both correct pour the second sentence. You could even use the future (it's very formal) and it sill means the cat is already dead and you don't know who killed it. – Destal Jan 2 '17 at 0:37
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The correct translations are, respectively:

Il aurait pu beaucoup mieux faire à l'examen.

It's correct to put "faire" before "beaucoup mieux" but better style to put it after.

Je pense que Pierre pourrait avoir tué le chat.

"peut" is correct but more unusual. It implies more certainty. "pourra" would imply you're talking about a situation where the cat is not dead yet, but is predicted to die.

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    Perso j'utiiserais «bien mieux» plutôt que «beaucoup mieux», à moins que le contexte n'indique une note. – AntoineL Jan 2 '17 at 14:21

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