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Gerald Erichsen

Does 'Sí, Se Puede' Mean 'Yes, We Can'?

By April 11, 2006

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Sí, se puede has become a rallying cry at many pro-immigration events across the United States in the past few days, and most of the news media have translated the phrase as meaning "yes, we can." Since there's no plural verb nor a first-person verb in that sentence — the typical way of saying "we can" would be podemos — the question naturally arises, is "yes, we can" an accurate translation?

The answer is yes and no.

To simplify things only a bit, "yes, we can" is not a literal translation of sí, se puede. In fact, there is no good literal (that is, word for word) translation of the phrase. clearly means "yes," but se puede is problematic. "It can" comes close to its literal meaning but leaves out the vague sense of emphasis and/or completion that se provides.

So just what does se puede mean? Out of context, I'd probably translate it loosely as "it can be done." But context matters, and as part of a group chant the translation of "yes, we can" is entirely appropriate. Se puede is a phrase of empowerment (puede is a close cousin of el poder, a noun meaning "power"), and "we can" conveys that thought well.

Want to know more? Check out these lessons:

Note: It is better write this slogan without a comma, as explained in this updated blog post.

Comments

April 11, 2006 at 3:38 pm
(1) connie says:

Couldn’t si se puede also be translated as Yes, it’s possible?

April 12, 2006 at 10:26 am
(2) Spanish says:

Sure, that’s another possibility, and there very seldom is an exact translation between two languages. Really, the context is key, and often there’s a meaning that can be determined only by the context.

If you ask me if humans will make it to Mars, and I answer, “It’s possible,” the meaning of those words will be different than if a group of people were to chant the words “It’s possible!” at a political demonstration. The words are the same, but the way they’re understood by the listener is different.

That’s why sometimes I think we shouldn’t get too hung up on how words should be translated. In legal and technical contexts, an exact (or exact as possible) translation is necessary. But in everyday life, there is almost always more than one way to get the idea across.

April 12, 2006 at 3:19 pm
(3) Joan says:

It comes from the UFW movement and the UFW site states:
Cesar Chavez always said “Si Se Puede”®–”it can be done”. Wear his logo with pride as you display your support for the UFW as we continue fighing for farm worker rights

April 17, 2006 at 10:03 pm
(4) Carlos Espinosa says:

Anyway…. “Sí, se puede” will ALWAYS mean in Spanish: “Yes, It’s allowed”.
Thanx

April 17, 2006 at 10:12 pm
(5) Carlos Espinosa says:

sorry… Just thinking about it again :)
-Yes, It’s possible
-Yes, It’s allowed
-Yes, It can be done

All of them can be used in Spanish… but the most used meaning is “It’s allowed”, just because “It can be done” is “Puede hacerse/Se puede hacer” and “It’s possible” is “Puede ser”… and I will never say “Se puede” when I mean “It’s possible”… this is more “Puede ser”…
Maybe in Southamerica they use that, but ABSOLUTELY not in Spain.
Thanxxx

April 20, 2006 at 12:49 pm
(6) Donaldo says:

Can “si se puede” in a Spanish sentence ever translate to “If it’s possible” in English? Does “Si se puede, por favor, ayudame” translate to “If possible, please, help me” ?

April 21, 2006 at 2:14 am
(7) Carlos Espinosa says:

Yes it is…
But I’d say “Ayúdame si puedes, por favor”, (“Helpme if you can, please”)
The other way sounds a little bit silly :-)

November 19, 2006 at 12:22 pm
(8) Joaquin says:

We shall overcome.

April 11, 2007 at 9:41 am
(9) Frank says:

Does it mean that phrase “Se Puede” has a grammer error literally in itself. I mean coz the “Se” here does not play the same function as the one in reflexive verbs like “levantarse”. So can I say,”Poder” here is not a reflexible verb?

January 24, 2008 at 12:03 pm
(10) Elizabeth says:

I think it’s funny how Hillary Clinton pronounces it jaja, but anyways it means “Yes it’s possible”.. Or at least that’s how I interpret it.

February 13, 2008 at 9:39 am
(11) Fernando says:

I think the most spanish way to say “Yes, we can” is “¡podemos!”, with a very spanish ellipsis of both the explicit affirmation and the subject, a well as the initial exclamation mark, to emphasize the sense and the spanish character.

November 9, 2008 at 11:29 am
(12) Estteban says:

The key word in “Si se puede” phrase is “Se”.”Se” is from the verb “To be”. In spanish “To be” can be:”Ser o Estar, depending on the use and circumstances. In English “To be ” is only “Being”. So if I say “I am Here” it means that I am physically here, but if I want to say to the world that that I practice law, I say “I am a lawyer”, I will use “I am” always. In spanish you say ” Estoy aqui” y “Soy un Abogado”. Notice how the verb “To be” reflects more clarity and in spanish. “Estoy” can be used to declare where you physically are or how your feelings inside of you are: “Estoy enojado” “I am Mad”. “Soy” on the other hand is a more powerful word.”Soy Americano” “Soy Democrata”.Going back to the sentence “Si se puede”, it is actually meaning that something very, very difficult to do, but not impossible. For example you want your mechanic to fix your car, but you don’t have the part, you ask the mechanic, Can you fix it without the part? He will probably answer “Si se puede” but eventually you will have to replace the part. The phrese “Si se puede” has become very popular in the last ten years with the Mexican National Soccer Team, all the mexicans support their team by singing in the stadiums ” Si se puede, si se puede”. It has been adopted by many Central and South american teams also, and now has been adopted by the Democrat Party for the Obama campaign.

November 18, 2008 at 8:51 pm
(13) Andres Esteban says:

Sorry Esteban (Estteban?) but “se” does not come from the verb “ser” that is “to be”. Only when you refer to afirmative imperative for the “you” (colloquial) which is “tú”, the conjugation is “sé” but with a “tilde” (accentuation mark).
“Se” may be used as a reflexive or reciprocal pronoun, as indirect object instead of “le/les” when followed of a direct object, as a passiev voice particle, or the impersonal “se” particle.

November 19, 2008 at 11:50 am
(14) Michael says:

‘Si, se puede’ is third person singular.

Surely, then, this is equivalent to “Yes, one can” which is an acceptable phrase in British “Queens” English.

For example, a person might express the following during a conversation “One often loves to walk in the garden, particularly in warm weather”

November 22, 2008 at 10:24 pm
(15) estteban says:

I totally agree with you Michael in the explanation of “Se”, but I firmly know that in the phrase we are talking about here, “SE” comes from the verb “Ser”, not as verb, but in the powerful meaning of the word itself.

December 3, 2008 at 9:49 pm
(16) furrykef says:

Sorry, estteban, but that doesn’t make any sense. There is no connection at all between “se” and “ser”, in this context or in any other, beyond the use of the imperative form “sé” (which makes no sense at all in this context). This sounds like a folk etymology at best.

June 13, 2009 at 1:15 am
(17) candice says:

Yes, “se” and “ser” have no connection at all. You might be confusing it with sé (with an accent), which IS related to ser.

August 30, 2009 at 8:14 am
(18) alex says:

doesnt it mean “yes, one can” like in the translation of “como se dice”?

September 3, 2009 at 2:45 am
(19) Keith says:

Michal and Alex: that makes a lot of sense. Thinking about it “podemos” wouldn’t make much sense, because it would be taking about a specific group of people. “Se puede” would actually make much more sense, as you’re talking about people in general.

Michael: That type of sentence in which “one” is used to reflect the views of the writer/speaker always irritates me. “One” should refer to people in general and to use it to refer to yourself seems terribly pretentious.

January 12, 2011 at 4:40 pm
(20) Tony says:

Has with all words has long as you can be understood in life thats what matters… saludos

April 19, 2011 at 12:32 pm
(21) Lady Lew says:

it’s beside the point. you guys just wanna change the subject to avoid the point of our “crys” so next time don’t be a butt.
Si Se puede!~

September 3, 2011 at 12:59 am
(22) Benjamin Flores says:

You are just not paying attention.
The writer of the article is right. Context is what matters here.
Obviously if you disagree you have never being chanting in a demonstration. Si se puede is excellent for chanting. Just try it it you will be convince. Not only that but historically that was the chanting use by the Cesar Chavez and his movement. Now the best translations for “Chanting” is “Yes we can”. again just try it. If you still are not convince become a member of the union and go to the streets and become the person in charge of developing the chanting and you will be completely convince that any other translation will be ridiculous. God bless you and God bless the immigrants.

September 3, 2011 at 1:02 am
(23) Benjamin Flores says:

You are just not paying attention. The writer of the article is right. Context is what matters here. Obviously if you disagree you have never being chanting in a demonstration. Si se puede is excellent for chanting. Just try it and you will be convince. Not only that but historically that was the chanting use by the Cesar Chavez and his movement. Now the best translations for chanting is “Yes we can”. again just try it. If you still are not convince become a member of the union and go to the streets and become the person in charge of developing the chanting and you will be completely convince that any other translation will be ridiculous. God bless you and God bless the immigrants.

June 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm
(24) Candi says:

Yes we are able

August 9, 2012 at 6:38 am
(25) Ely says:

There’s a nuance lost and I think you wrote it worng in the article, because you’ve lost the intended meaning.

It’s NOT «Sí, se puede» (Yes, it can be done), rather it’s «Sí se puede», without the comma.

It’s not something easily translatable.

«Sí, se puede» would be like answering a question. “Can it be done?”, “Yes, it can”.

«Sí se puede», while it translates in the exact same way (“Yes, it can”) it’s more like a bold statement, a pronouncement of fact, something that it can and it WILL be done, somethign that is shouted with confidence from the rooftops. («Sí» in this case is an adverb that modifies in a good, positive way the verb).

In fact, «Sí se puede» is probably mroe along the lines of «Sí se puede, la gente puede» , “Yes, it can be done; the people [we] can do it” (since it was at an immigration rally). And that’s where you get the “Yes, we can”.

I agree much more with the “Yes, we can” than your commentary on it.

January 19, 2013 at 3:36 am
(26) P says:

Is there a danger of it being translated as “if” without the comma? With my limited Spanish I would regard the comma as making it much more positive than without – quite possibly wrongly, I accept!

August 15, 2013 at 1:33 pm
(27) Ted says:

“Si” without the accent is “if.” The word here has the accent, so it unambiguously means “yes.”

On the comma, “Sí,…” directly ranslates to “Yes,….” But Spanish uses “sí” without a comma to add emphasis: “yes!” instead of “yes.”

‘Si se puede” is “If it is possible.”

“Sí, se puede” is “Yes, it’s possible,” or “Yes, we can,” as if in response to the question,”¿Se puede?”

“Sí se puede” is an emphatic statement: “Yes we can!”

September 5, 2013 at 3:01 pm
(28) Linda says:

¡Sí! Ted finally gets it right. Ely: yes! There is no comma.

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