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I am wildered because aurait literally means 'would have'. Then *Elle aurait pu literally means 'she would have pu — it is blindingly obvious that 'could' hasn't cropped up, and the syntax has no place for 'could'. But then what does pu mean exactly?

(d) ‘could’ may imply that something should be done or should have been done: this can be rendered by a suitable tense of pouvoir:

Elle aurait pu me dire qu’elle ne pourrait pas le faire.
She could have told me that she couldn’t do it.

Roger Hawkins and Richard Towell, French Grammar and Usage (2015 4 edn), p 280.

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    Your english translation has "could have", not "should have". That's where pouvoir comes in (notice that in English, it's impossible to say "should can" because "could" already combines both meaning. That's not possible in French because the conditional isn't marked by an auxiliary verb, so we inflect pouvoir instead) Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 21:17

2 Answers 2

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The problem is that you are somehow expecting to be able to translate between French and English in a word-to-word way. This doesn't always work.

In English (and I think this is really a question about English), the modal verb can/could is deficient; this means it can't be conjugated in all situations. We replace the modal verb can/could with the phrase to be able to for tenses where could doesn't work:

̶I̶ ̶w̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶ ̶ I will be able to,
̶I̶ ̶m̶i̶g̶h̶t̶ ̶c̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶ I might be able to,
̶I̶ ̶w̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶h̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶c̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶ I would have been able to.

So the fact that the translation for j'aurais pu is I would have been able to is entirely consistent with the way the English and French languages work.

Your other question (about j'aurais dû) is actually a more interesting one. You can generally translate je dois by I must. And in English, must turns into to have to for tenses where must doesn't work. So you'd think that

j'aurais dû

would mean

I would have had to.

But it usually doesn't; it means I should have. I don't know if there's any way you could work this out logically (although I suspect that native French speakers will say that it's obvious), or whether you just have to know that the conditional tenses for devoir mean should. I suspect it's the second case.

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  • I would have had [to go there]: J'aurais été obligé d'y aller. Much more likely. But these things have to be given in context. Not putting in complements. such as to go there, makes it very hard to translate, however.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 17:16
  • It's because "j'aurais = would" is a false equivalency. It works most of the time but these terms overlaps in their modality depending on aspects and context, which shows the kind of mismatch we see here with should.
    – Simon
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 19:28
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You shouldn't translate word by word [auxiliary + verb] constructions because they are fundamentally different in English and in French.

In English, can is an auxiliary and cannot do many things pouvoir can. In a number of situations you need to use to be able to in order to express a simple conjugation of pouvoir. So I don't think you do things like "Elle aurait pu = she would have pu".

But yes, if can could be conjugated that way, you could say that "Elle aurait pu" would translate to "She would have could" (if that makes any sense to you), just like "Elle aurait été" translates to "She would have been"

If English is your native language, it is hard to imagine conjugating pouvoir in a fashion that is literally impossible in English, so until you get more familiar with the language, I suggest that for now you don't try too hard to break it down and take the construction as a whole.

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  • She would have been able to is the English for elle aurait pu, and this is completely analogous to the French. What is less clear to English speakers is why elle aurait dû is she should have rather than she would have had to. Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 13:13
  • I wouldn't say analoguous. In terms of construction, She would have been able to is analoguous to Elle aurait été capable de. I understand what you mean in your second point though, it wasn't clear in OP's question. Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 14:01
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    Au premier niveau: devoir et pouvoir sont must/should [verb] and to be able to/can. I feel like your answer falls into the trap set by the OP's not knowing this.
    – Lambie
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 16:14

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