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.