28/10/2013 06:07 GMT | Updated 25/12/2013 05:12 GMT

With Google Translate I Thee Wed?

Online encounters and romances are nothing new now. However there are some stories that are far from typical. Take Bryan and Anna. He's American, living in Boise, Idaho, and she's from small-town Russia - some 450 miles from Moscow. Neither can speak each other's language, but they have fallen deeply in love with each other. How? Well, every single word of their online communications from a simple 'Hi' ('privet' in Russian) to their most tender romantic feelings, have all been translated by a machine - Google Translate, the online translation tool.

Not surprisingly, Bryan's family and workmates had concerns. Was Anna for real? Could she be a so-called mail-order bride?

I first met Bryan online nearly two years ago, during a series of interviews for a BBC Radio 4 series called Don't Log Off that has been on the air since January 2012. The concept of the show is to seek out people's stories from all over the world - not by traditional or conventional research methods - but by meeting their online lives that dwell within the landscape of social networking sites like facebook and Skype.

I began with nothing, just a profile that said "talk to me", and soon people like Bryan were slowly but surely added to my bare facebook page. I recorded our online chats, and Bryan's story was broadcast last year - which introduced the listeners to him and Anna, the love of his life, who he'd still never met in person.

No Illusion

But, as another year passed, Bryan had more and more news for me. He'd been to visit Anna in Russia, and no, she was certainly not an online illusion. The next steps were already in place - preparing a series of complicated documents for Anna and her two children to leave Russia, and to begin a new home in the US with Bryan.


But there was one important factor to make this one-way ticket binding. They had to be married in America within 90 days of her arrival. With their wedding day set, I had purchased my own airline ticket to meet them in Idaho. But then a message from Bryan on facebook came 'out of the blue'. Their wedding plans had changed...

A New Departure

Ever since the voices and the stories had begun to cut through the digital ether, Don't Log Off was initially devised as a collection of recorded interviews conducted via Skype. My producers Laurence Grissell and Sarah Bowen had shared the task of editing and honing my online conversations into themed programmes with titles like 'Hopes and Fears', 'Freedom' or 'Connection and Separation'. Each show presented unique and personal stories - told by people who somehow have stumbled upon my online pages - but their tales would connect in unexpected ways as they cross time zones and continents. Now this format was about to change as I boarded a plane to meet Bryan and Anna in person.


During the transatlantic voyage, myself and Laurence Grissell had time to dwell on the methodology of a radio project that had began as disconnected phone-like conversations but was heading into the turbulent real-life world of a couple inevitably dealing with the strain and the turbulence of their unusual situation.

Don't Hang Up

It also begged the comparison with an earlier project called Don't Hang Up that I'd worked on with the producer Mark Burman. Back in 2001 we concocted a BBC radio series about the possibilities of truly random encounters by ringing public phone boxes, and recording conversations with whoever picked up. Here were remarkable snapshots of ordinary people who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Don't Log Off

Of course, the online world is different - the voices are still real and unfiltered, but their connection is through a shared medium of profiles and messaging, and chats and the 'adds', that are all the building blocks of social networking sites. But, still there is an amazing moment when I click on the green button and ring someone who I only know through the barest of online profiles. Who knows where they are in the world - or what story might emerge from our conversation?

Will they, or won't they?

As we land at Boise Airport, and I pick up the car rental from the lot, we put aside our musings on random encounters and the internet, and I prepare myself for my first meeting, for real, with the couple who found each other in (Google) translation. There are so many questions that I'm looking forward to asking Bryan and Anna about their very first two months together in America - and of course there's the really big one: will they or won't they be getting married...

Find out in Don't Log Off on BBC Radio 4 Saturday 26th October 2013 at 10.30am:

Previous episodes of Don't Log Off can be heard via:


Anna & Bryan in Idaho

Photo: Laurence Grissell


On the road in Idaho

Photo: Laurence Grissell