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Rebekka’s story

Last year on New Year’s Eve, just before I turned 74, I found my Russian family.

I was born during the war years to a Finnish woman and a Russian prisoner of war (a bit of Finnish history). My father, who could speak Finnish, had been sent to work on a farm in Finland. My mother often helped out on that farm and that’s how they met. Their love story was a short one, lasting from spring to the next fall when the war ended and he was of course sent back to the Soviet Union. As a previous prisoner, after that he would not have been allowed to try to contact my mother back in Finland, so I’m not sure if he ever knew about me.

I was pretty young when my godmother told me about my father being a Soviet prisoner of war. My mom never talked about it, even when I came home from school and asked her why the other kids at school were calling me ‘russki’ and what it even meant. Later as an adult I tried asking her about it and writing letters asking her for information. She could never answer.

But my Russian heritage…it’s always been a part of me. I’ve been fascinated with the language and Orthodoxism and the music and all. And I had often wondered about a possible family in Russia, but it was my daughter who started this whole adventure. She began to search for information on my father and his family as part of a high school history class project, though she unfortunately hit a dead end because the name of the Mordovian village my father was from was misspelled in the records.

A few years ago she took up the search again, this time with the help of social media. She sent out a message about my story and desire for information. Then on New Year’s Eve we got a message from Oleg, a man from the same village as my father whose interest in local history pushed him to follow up on our message. He reported that he had found my family.

Right after I got the information on my family, I signed up for Russian classes and started studying. I’ve had a few challenges in keeping it up, like the fact that I live fairly far out in the country and last spring the roads were covered with ice, but I keep working at it. My daughter also set me up with a language teaching app in my phone and that is pretty good. But my Russian is not good enough to use in communicating with my sisters.

Enter machine translation

After Oleg sent that first message to my daughter that he thought he had found my family, he sent one directly to me, in Russian. I thought, how the heck can I write to him? How is this going to work? My daughter told me about these translation apps, set one up in my phone, and told me to start learning. And so I did.

Next I sent a message to one of my sisters and it didn’t take long – was it a week? even less – before she replied. That’s how the whole thing got started.

Soon I was communicating with all 3 sisters. Later the same year my daughter and I spent a week at one of the sister’s homes in Transnistria. Several months after that we went to Moscow and all 4 of us sisters appeared on a Russian TV show that featured our story. By now we are messaging each other all the time and I feel like I’ve gotten to know them all well. I also communicate with Oleg, who has become a good friend, plus a cousin and other relatives and friends I’ve met.

We communicate in a Russian social media app called Odnoklassniki or ’OK’. When I get a message from them in Russian, I copy it, go to the Google Translate app, and paste it there to get a translation into Finnish that I can understand. When I want to send a message back, I write my message in Finnish in Google Translate and translate it into Russian, then copy that, go back to the OK app, and paste it there.

Lately I’ve started to check the translations of my messages before I send them on. I take the Russian translation and translate that back into Finnish to make sure it says what I want it to say. If it doesn’t, I try writing it in a different way to see if it works better. When I’m finally satisfied I’m saying what I want to say and it’s a sensible message, I copy it, paste it back into the OK app, and send it to the other person.

I do all of this on my phone. My computer is just too slow so I gave up on it. At first I was nervous about these smartphones, I remember saying to my daughter that I’m afraid to use it! Her answer was to get me a phone and say, ’Now go learn it! Try things out for yourself.’ And that’s what I did.

Working between the OK app and Google Translate is a bit slow, you can only work with 1 message at a time and there’s a lot of copying and pasting and going back and forth between different apps. And it gives crazy translations sometimes! But it’s just very handy and I use it all the time.

One of my sisters complains about the bad translations. She has started to send me messages in Finnish. I guess she translates them on her side and sends me that, but I don’t know what kind of system she uses for that. Anyway it can actually be kind of problematic, like when I asked her for her address and she put it through Google Translate, so I got street names translated into Finnish. I couldn’t use that.

My sisters and I chat about all kinds of things. They often ask me about my health and warn me about things like walking on ice because it’s slippery. We also talk about food and recipes. One interesting thing is how often they use the word love. Right from the beginning they did that. I’m just not that used to that kind of thing.

Sometimes things go wrong in the communication and I can tell the other person didn’t understand my message because they give me answers that are way off. Then I just try writing and translating the message again.

Once I asked one of my sisters for a recipe for a food she served while we were there, some kind of stuffed bell peppers. She sent me the recipe and later asked, ’Well, was the pepper good?’ I was wondering what on earth pepper thing she was talking about, but of course she meant the bell peppers.

But even though I get some pretty crazy translations from this tool, it’s pretty rare that I’m left wondering what others mean with something. I just kind of put things together and figure out what it must be about. And somehow my sisters and I almost always understand each other. We’ve gotten to know each other pretty well over the last year and somehow we can just get the meaning even if the translation is wrong.

Overall I think these translation tools are very useful. I tell people that you have to do a bit of work, but it’s still handy. Without them, well…I couldn’t keep in touch with people. It would be very limited. It’s not realistic to think that I’d learn Russian well enough to be able to translate and write it, no matter how interested I am in it. So this translation app is really important, even though it translates things however it wants to.


During the period of 1939-1945, Finland fought 3 wars with the Soviet Union. During the longest of those wars, the Continuation War from 1941–1944, Soviet prisoners of war were either kept in camps or put to work in factories or mines. Some were even sent to work on family farms in Finland, which were suffering from a lack of work force due to the large number of men off fighting in the war. Certain prisoners, classified as ‘clan’ soldiers because they were of a nationality that was related to Finland and Finnish, were given special treatment and better chances of being sent to farms. Officially the farm workers were to be treated like prisoners, sleeping behind locked doors and being given strictly rationed food. However, some were treated the same as other farm workers. When the war ended in 1944, all prisoners of war had to be sent back to the Soviet Union.

“Hasn’t it always been there?” – machine translation for patents

I work with patents and I use machine translation at work very regularly, maybe every other day. Mostly I use MT to read patents and patent applications that are in other languages. We have a patent search database where we retrieve the patents and that database has a machine translation function built into it, so it’s very easy to use.

If we have an idea for a new invention, the first thing we have to do is make sure it has not already been invented by someone else. That’s why we need to read through other patents and patent applications – we’re looking for the ones that are closest to our own invention or product, those are the relevant ones. The others we can ignore. Many of the ones we read are already in English, but there are also quite a few that are in some other language, and those are the ones we read through machine translation. We also might read other patents to make sure others are not infringing on our patents (or vice versa), to keep up with what’s going on in our field, or to check on the IPR of other companies.

The languages we are translating from most are Chinese, Japanese and Korean. China is currently the largest producer of patents, by a lot, but Japan and Korea are also high on the list. Then sometimes we translate from German and French. I know some German but none of those other languages. For German patents I often check the original document as well as the machine translation, putting together both to get an understanding. 

If we don’t understand the machine translation well enough, we can resort to other methods. As I mentioned, the patent database has its own machine translation function. But it also offers an alternative, Google Translate, if the first translation we get isn’t good enough for us to understand. And if that’s still not enough to be able to see if the patent is relevant or not, we can order human translation for whatever piece of text we need. We also might order human translation when a patent is clearly very relevant and important to our work, so we have to be sure we have a very good understanding of it. And of course, if we need to use some information from a patent in a legal setting, we don’t use the machine-translated version, we get it translated by a human.

Machine translation saves us time. In situations where you don’t need to understand every detail, it really is sufficient. You can get some kind of understanding quickly.

What was work like before we had machine translation? Hmmm…hasn’t it always been there?! I have to say, I feel like it’s always been there. I think we’ve used it…at least since 2010. Our way of working has changed so dramatically over the years. The work has grown and gotten digitalized, and the MT was there and you just kind of noticed it and started to use it and it just…snuck up on you like a thief, now that I think about it.

Our new employees learn to use machine translation while learning to use our patent search database. And when they first start reading the machine translations, they just laugh. The sentences and the structures just look a bit funny. But once you get past that, then you get used to the level of the language and you learn to pick out the important points. Also, patent publications have a certain structure and there’s a certain format that they’re in. That makes them easier to follow.

And yes, we also make decisions based on machine translations, even though there are risks. We have to. It would simply not be possible to do all of this with human translations. Plus there are many other risks in our work – the first one comes when you go searching for relevant patents, you might use the wrong keywords or miss something. Then there are risks when using MT. But this is how our industry works, everybody uses machine translation to screen patents in other languages. Then when you’ve found the most relevant patents, you weigh the risks, importance, and cost, and decide what to do. Basically, the more risky the situation is, the less you are going to rely on machine translation.

patent text

Screen shot of an example patent picked by me (as you can see by the topic of blogging software) from the European Patent Office’s patent search database. The text in the background is the machine translation and the text in the pop-up blue box is the original paragraph in Chinese.

Interested in learning more about users of patent machine translation? My first academic paper on the group can be found here.

Nora, young world traveler

One of the most comical situations I’ve been in with machine translation was when a colleague and I went to see a local tourist site in a part of China where people don’t tend to speak English. We were trying to buy tickets with the help of Google Translate but for some reason, no one could understand what we wanted. I think they were telling us where we needed to go, and we just kept repeating that we want to buy tickets. Then more and more people gathered around to help and we were all typing furiously on our phones. After 15 minutes we finally managed to get the tickets.

GT screenshot_buytickets

It was in China that I originally got the idea that machine translation would be helpful while traveling. Some colleagues and I were trying to work out something in Chinese when one of them pulled out her phone, translated, and we quickly figured it out. Before that I’d used Google Translate rarely, just to check individual words while I was studying or something.

Nowadays I use the Google Translate app very often. My work in the international travel industry means I travel to a lot of foreign destinations, spending 1-5 days in each. In many locations I get by just fine with English, but especially in China and Japan, I find myself pulling out my phone and using Google Translate many times a day.

One of the main places I use it is in restaurants and it seems to be a very common thing to do that. Especially in China, the minute they realize we don’t share a language, they pull out a phone and start trying to communicate through machine translation. In Japan it’s kind of the opposite – they won’t be the first to start trying with Google Translate. I think they’re quite shy, and maybe a bit embarrassed that they don’t know English. The Chinese seem to want to understand so they jump right in and don’t worry about potentially embarrassing situations.

I actually know a little Chinese so might get by on that and body language, but I also eat vegetarian so often need to explain things a bit more. If I try to say ‘No meat!’ with my few words of Chinese, they might only understand the word ‘meat’ and bring me a meat dish. (In fact that has happened and I was presented with octopus, beef and shrimp. Perfect.) Better to translate what I’m trying to say on the phone.

Most of the time I type what I want to say into the app and then it translates. If the person looks confused then I try writing it again in a slightly different way. Once in a while I use the voice thing where you talk into the phone’s speaker and it translates, but mostly I like the typing better. Somehow with the voice thing I’m less sure if it’s correct or not. Sometimes I use both: first let them read the translated text, then listen to a voice translation.

I also use the Google Translate app in stores to read labels and signs. One of my favorite things to do abroad is to visit local grocery stores, I love spending time in them. And, of course, since I’m often at a destination for several days, I need to buy some very normal, everyday things. Or I might shop for clothing and then I want to good, natural materials. What I use in these situations is that translation app function where I take a photo of a text – a label or a sign – and it tries to translate it for me.

The app has even been helpful at work on occasion. Like when a customer speaks a language I don’t know, or even a dialect of a language that is hard to understand, but they really need something. Then we have sometimes used Google Translate to communicate and resolve their issues.

I would say that my success rate with using apps to communicate with other people is fairly high, maybe 80-100% Usually I get what I want and they understand me, at least I think so. With the picture-taking method I’d say the rate of success is more like 50/50. Sometimes I get a clue what something’s about but sometimes…it’s just random words. The photo thing is just not that good yet.  

I always use English with these machine translation apps. I just think that my own language is not a good language to translate with. It seems to me that English is the key to machine translating. Or should I say it this way: if you understand English, it’s much easier for you to use it.

Eeva’s story: 现在我们出去玩 (Now we’re going out to play)

This is a good time to tell you about how we used Google Translate with our now-6-year-old son because just last week we celebrated the 2-year anniversary of when we went to China to adopt him. He had just turned 4 then.

Before we left for China, I wondered how we’re going to manage to communicate with a little boy who speaks his own language but doesn’t yet know how to read it. And we didn’t know any Chinese. We had a Chinese guide with us on the trip, so I asked him about maybe using Google Translate. He said yes, that could work; he had a similar tool that he used from time to time. He told us the right version of Chinese to use with it and also gave us advice on how to use it. The main thing was to use as simple and short sentences as possible.

We tried it out, typing out our Finnish sentences and then having the app “speak” in Chinese. We considered using spoken Finnish input too, but thought that there might be a bigger chance of mistakes then so we stuck to typing. We did say the sentences out loud in Finnish as we typed so that our son would start to connect what we were saying with what was happening.

Our son is a very responsive child and quickly figured out that the Chinese coming from the phone was telling him something helpful. He would nod and then do what the app told him to do. Or he might answer back ‘No!’ if he didn’t want to do what it was telling him to do (that was a Chinese word we learned quickly). Either way, we knew he understood.

We used this system mostly for things that we couldn’t communicate through hand signals. Things like what is happening and what we’re going to do next: “Mommy is making the food. Then we’ll eat.” Why we’re all getting our clothes on: “Now we’re going outside.” That was important, we didn’t want him to feel confused.

Translation of 'Mommy is making the food. Then we'll eat.' from English to Simplified Chinese

I’d say during the first month we used it 10 times a day. I pretty much had my phone near me at all times, ready to go whenever my son showed signs of being confused or wondering about what’s going on. Every once in a while the app clearly got my sentence wrong so I had to try again, but at least half the time it worked fine on the first try.

How did it affect his learning of Finnish? It’s kind of hard to say because I don’t know what it might have been like without us using Google Translate. But I think it most likely made learning Finnish easier. It was just astounding how quickly he picked it up! Though kids at that age, they tend to learn very quickly.

We didn’t end up using this system very long. We met our son in January and I clearly remember that by March he started to use the Finnish words he knew. We had had an interpreter along for things like doctor visits, and in March he also stopped replying to her in Chinese. I guess he might have thought that Finnish belongs to his new life and positive experiences, so he just made a conscious decision to stop using Chinese. 

I recently asked him if he remembers using the translation app at the beginning. He remembered that it was a woman’s voice (true) and that he understood her every time she spoke (not so sure on that one, he tends to be a bit of an optimist).  

Even though we only used machine translation for that short time, it was a very effective time. It helped us to explain things and what was going on. It was a big help.