Our last lesson was about four tricky, same-sounding conjugations of être (to be). Now we're going to look more closely at two of them, seraient and serait, as examples of a special use of the conditional mood of être.
As you remember from last time, the conditional is often indicated in English by the use of "would." "That would be better with sugar" becomes, Ça serait mieux avec du sucre. However, the French conditional mood does not always correspond to an exact English equivalent using "would."
L'OMS publie un rapport inquiétant aujourd'hui: cinq pour cent des nouveaux cas de tuberculose seraient multirésistants, ce qui implique des traitements beaucoup plus lourds.
The WHO published a troublesome report today: five percent of new tuberculosis cases appear to be multi-resistant strains, which require much heavier treatments.
Captions 6-8, Le Journal: La tuberculose
Here we find a different use for the conditional in French, that of introducing a very slight element of uncertainty. It's often found in somewhat formal contexts, such as news reports. Notice that our translation doesn't say that the strains of TB "are" multi-resistant or that they "would be" multi-resistant, but rather that they "appear to be" so. We find something similar in a Le Journal story examining the trend toward "retro" baby names in France:
Et pourquoi pas? Après tout, Adèle, Victorine, Ernest ou Alphonse seraient sur le retour.
And why not? After all, Adèle, Victorine, Ernest or Alphonse seem to be coming back.
Caption 18, Le Journal: Choisir un nom d'enfant
In this usage, the speaker is indicating that she is not 100% sure of the facts at hand. It wouldn't do to say sont sur le retour (are coming back), perhaps because the evidence is anecdotal or otherwise unscientific. As you can see in the above translation, this use of the conditional, seraient, is analogous to the phrase "seem to be" in English. A closer, more literal translation might be "are supposed to be," but we wouldn't use that in English because "supposed to," idiomatically, connotes obligation (as in, "Aren't you supposed to be at school?"). But in a literal sense, the speaker is supposing that a given statement is true and scrupulously indicating so to the listener by using the conditional.
Similarly, "is apparently" might be the right fit:
Le rire serait aussi bénéfique que le sport.
Laughter is apparently as good for you as sports.
Caption 14, Le Journal: Les effets bénéfiques du rire!
In a slightly different context, it might make more sense to translate this usage with the phrase "are reportedly":
Près d'une centaine de domaines du Bordelais seraient aujourd'hui en vente.
Nearly a hundred properties in the Bordeaux region are reportedly for sale today.
Caption 26, Le Journal: Les vignobles
Mais attention! As with many things concerning the French language, the use of the conditional to express uncertainty can be quite subtle. In fact, it can express such a minute degree of doubt that we wouldn't bother to express it in English. So sometimes we don't translate it. There's an example of this in our video about climate change:
D'après les scientifiques, les bouleversements climatiques les plus profonds seraient à venir.
According to scientists, the most drastic climatic changes are yet to come.
Caption 31, Le Journal: Indices révélateurs des glaciers
The speaker here is using the conditional seraient to accentuate the subjective aspect of the assertion, already indicated by the phrase d'après les scientifiques (according to scientists). In English, we consider the introductory phrase to be sufficient—we wouldn't say "the most drastic climatic changes would be to come." It's no accident that "nuance" is a French word!
We hope there's no doubt whatsoever that this lesson was helpful!
For more discussion of this topic, visit this Word Reference Forum thread.