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Lost in the language of signs

By Barry Neild for CNN

Potentially painful warning outside a temple in Yangon, Myanmar.




Biz Traveller

LONDON, England (CNN) -- No matter if you've packed a map, read your guidebook or listened to your language tapes, sooner or later every traveler looks to signposts for help.

But rather than point you on the right path, some may lead you deeper into the woods -- albeit with a smile on your face.

Most international travelers have stumbled across bizarrely written signs, instruction manuals or menus as they try to make sense of foreign cultures.

Whether an eye-wateringly bad translation or a poorly thought out choice of words, the results are often accidentally hilarious.

Now one author has collected 160 examples of misdirection and misunderstanding in a new book, "Signspotting," published by Lonely Planet travel guides, which highlights how mangled English has become a cult obsession among amused globetrotters.

"It is a level of unintentional humor that transcends education," says U.S. author Doug Lansky, who has a filing cabinet stuffed with more than 10,000 pictures of surreal, spurious -- and occasionally saucy -- signposts.

Lansky, now based in Stockholm, Sweden, began collecting the snaps during 10 years on the road writing a travel column. He now receives scores of submissions from the Web site Signspottingexternal link.

Promised Land: Closed

"It probably says as much about my photography skills as the humor of the signs, but when I got home, they were the only pictures my friends wanted to see," he told CNN.

"I was always a big fan of Gary Larsen's cartoons," he said, referring to the U.S. artist behind the famous "Far Side" comic strips.

"Then I realized there are complete morons all over the planet putting up signs funnier than Gary Larsen could come up with."

The cover of Lansky's book features prime examples of baffling signposts including the painful warning: "foot wearing prohibited," the rather gloomy "promised land -- closed," and the contradictory: "evacuation route -- no through road".

But his favorites tend to be more absurd -- or macabre.

Funeral home fun day

"I like the more morbid ones, such as 'Funeral home -- open house fun day.' I'd like to know who sits around thinking: 'Hey, I've got a free day on Saturday, let's go to a funeral home'?

"Others are about juxtaposition, like an advertisement for a taxidermy and cheese store. Who came up with that business model? What was going through their heads?"

Although a large number of strange signs are found in non-English speaking countries, Lansky says the worst offenders don't have language skills to hide behind.

"America is pretty bad -- go figure. China has got quite a few; sadly it's the places that try the hardest who do the worst because they are putting themselves out there more.

'America has no excuse'

"But the more people who visit these places, the more their English improves and the signs get better -- but America doesn't have any excuse."

Says Lansky, the broad appeal of silly signposts has generated a fanatical following.

"They are something that everyone sees, and they can have a chuckle to themselves. Some people will also go to great lengths to get them. One person dodged gunfire on the Pakistani border to get a picture of a bullet hole-riddled sign."

For travelers who are still bamboozled, Lansky's advice is to laugh in the face of absurdity.

"Don't try to understand it, just enjoy it. It is a little treat to savor. These are not the sorts of things you can go looking for, these things find you -- and when they do, have a camera ready!"

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