Breaking the Language Barrier with Google (Part 2): Renting an Apartment

While walking through Cusco’s San Blas neighborhood, looking for an apartment to rent, it occurred to me that I might have not one, but two language barriers while obtaining housing: Spanish and Legalese. Once again, I was to rely on my capable assistant: Google.

Our stay with a Peruvian family had been great, but with four of us it was apparent that we needed more space and a home closer to the city center. In addition to canvassing the desired neighborhoods, I searched through the local “Rueda de Negocios” newspaper for the first two weeks but did not find anything to suit us. I found a large apartment for $1,000 per month (outrageous by Cusco standards) and a horrendous little adobe shack on a steep hill for $100 per month, but nothing that would work for us. The third week I was referred to Miguel, who told me that he was building a new apartment above his house. It was advertised as a two-bedroom, unfurnished apartment but when I said that I needed a three-bedroom, furnished apartment, with utilities included, he said that would be “no problemo” and would get back to me with a price.

Miguel came back with a $1,000 quote; after my audible gasp, we agreed to talk about the price the next day. After a negotiating session with Miguel and his father and brother as well as the architect, we got the price down to a bit more than half that amount. This was done by pulling out my calculator and a sheet of paper and adding up all costs involved. Several times we had to stop as Miguel’s brother ran to the other room to pull various receipts: the previous month’s water bill, the last property tax bill, the receipt for the sofa and beds, etc.

The day after we agreed on the price, Miguel emailed me a three-page legal document in Spanish. This was where the fun began. Not only was the formal Spanish language unfamiliar, there were plenty of legal terms that I had not seen before. It was time for Google.

First, I cut and pasted the Spanish language document into Google translate. Once I cleaned up the obvious errors, I analyzed the document and felt I had a pretty good understanding of its meaning. I then did a Google search for Spanish-language rental and lease agreement templates on the web to see if there were any glaring omissions in the document they sent me. One important omission was that I was dealing with Miguel when actually his father was the legal owner of the building. I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that a rental contract with a person that does not own the property is not valid. I pointed this out in the response that I was formulating in English. When my response was done, I cut and pasted it into Google translate, cleaned up the glaring errors and cut and pasted it into an email. After two and a half hours, I had my Spanish-language response crafted.

After two more iterations, we were getting closer, but with my laborious translation process, we were using a lot of time and I wanted to have something pinned down soon. On a Saturday evening, after a day of river rafting, I sat down with Miguel’s dad and we chatted about his work. He crafts intricate wood carvings like altars, headboards, cabinets, and tables and his work is amazing. He has done commissions for carved altars for several Cusco churches. After 45 minutes of amiable chatting, we hammered out the remaining details in less than a minute and we had a deal.

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