Breaking the Language Barrier with Google (Part 3): The First Day at the Office

I knew I was in trouble on my first day of work at the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) when I sat down for a meeting and the program director walked in, looked at me and asked “Un ratito?” As I wondered how a small rat would come in handy at a business meeting, the director noticed my confusion and gave me a patronizing look normally reserved for someone who’s discovered they’re dealing with a moron: “Oh…he has no idea what I'm saying.” While the Director smiled uneasily and walked out of the room, I quickly Googled “ratito” on my laptop and learned that it did not mean small rat (una rata) but was an expression meaning “just a minute”.

When she returned, she and I along with the head of the Center’s Education Department sat down to my first-ever business meeting in Spanish. I knew nothing more than we would be talking about a budget for an event that was to take place the following year. We proceeded to review a proposal that was provided by a Peruvian business consultant. She guided us through the proposal while I nodded pensively; I understood about 25% of what I read and heard. The proposal contained many business terms that I was unfamiliar with. The program director finished outlining the proposal and the two of them paused, looked at me and said "Puedes hacerlo?" (“Can you do this?”)

I took a long pause to glance at the proposal in order to give the impression of measured thought, while I asked myself: “What was I thinking? How in the world am I going to do this?”

Over the next few weeks I was to learn more about the project. The Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco plans to host a Pan-American event called Encuentro de los Tejadores de las Americas. (Meeting of the Weavers of the Americas) in October of 2010. They will invite weavers from many countries from the Western Hemisphere to come to Cusco and share knowledge, weaving techniques, marketing tips on the art and commerce of weaving.

As I continued to peruse the proposal, I weighed my options…I could fake it: “Sure, It’ll be on your desk tomorrow morning” or I could try honesty “Look, I have no idea what you guys are talking about”. I decided to try to buy time: “Let me see all the related documents and I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”

Later that day, after I’d gathered all the relevant documents, I cut and pasted them into Google Translate, fixed the inevitable machine-translation errors, and absorbed the information. I read the English translation of all 15 documents and was starting to get a general idea of what they were planning. In addition, I was quickly learning a lot of Spanish-language business terminology. I made an English-language list of all the activities that entailed an expense, dropped them into Google translate and arranged the English-language results into logical groups in an excel spreadsheet. After cleaning it up a bit and adding columns for soles and dollars, I had a first pass at Spanish-Language budget.

When I came into work the next morning I took my colleagues through my budget model. Not only were they impressed with the model, they were impressed with my newly-acquired business Spanish vocabulary. Based on this, they decided they did not need the Peruvian consultant whose proposal we reviewed the previous day; I now had my first project to work on.

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