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“In case of fire, please alarm the hotel porter” and other amusing mistranslations

When we language-lazy British learn a foreign language we do so safe in the knowledge that the native speaker we get to practise on will probably be sympathetic, impressed at our efforts and sometimes even surprised at our desire to learn their language in the first place.

As English speakers we have an irritating barrier to progress: everyone learns and therefore wants to practise or show off their English, which makes it difficult for us to reciprocate, but the flip-side of this is that however awkward and basic our attempts to communicate, we will usually be heartily congratulated. It’s your choice as to whether to feel like a linguistic superhero, or patronised.

Learning to communicate in a foreign language with a friendly-faced person is one thing. Committing something to paper, a screen, or even a billboard requires a different level of confidence. As language learners we regularly have to help ourselves to large slices of humble pie, so when we witness translation failures into English, we should treat them as learning experiences: an insight into the structure of the original language, and not simply as a source of mirth!

Having said that, for your amusement, I give you...

Western Europe

Cocktail lounge, Norway: Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar. Airline ticket office, Copenhagen: We take your bags and send them in all directions.

Hotel, Vienna: In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter. At a Budapest zoo: Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty. Hotel lobby, Bucharest: The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable. Doctor's office, Rome: Specialist in women and other diseases. A laundry in Rome: Ladies, leave your clothes here and spend the afternoon having a good time. In an Italian cemetery: Persons are prohibited from picking flowers from any but their own graves. Hotel brochure, Italy: This hotel is renowned for its peace and solitude. in fact, crowds from all over the world flock here to enjoy its solitude. In a Swiss Mountain inn: Special today - No ice-cream. On the menu of a Swiss restaurant: Our wines leave you nothing to hope for. A sign posted in Germany's Black Forest: It is strictly forbidden on our Black Forest camping site that people of different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for this purpose. A sign seen on an automatic restroom hand dryer in Germany: Do not activate with wet hands. On the grounds of a private school in Scotland: No trespassing without permission. Hotel elevator, Paris: Please leave your values at the front desk.

Eastern Europe

Hotel, Serbia: The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid. In the lobby of a Moscow hotel across from a Russian Orthodox monastery: You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists, and writers are buried daily except Thursday. Hotel catering to skiers, Austria: Not to perambulate the corridors in the hours of repose in the boots of ascension. Taken from a menu, Poland: Salad a firm's own make; limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten in the country people's fashion. From the Soviet Weekly: Here will be a Moscow exhibition of arts by 15,000 Soviet Republic painters and sculptors. These were executed over the past two years. On the door of a Moscow hotel room: If this is your first visit to the USSR, you are welcome to it. Tourist agency, Czech Republic: Take one of our horse-driven city tours. We guarantee no miscarriages.

Australia & New Zealand

On a poster in Sydney: Are you an adult that cannot read? If so, we can help. In a New Zealand restaurant: Open seven days a week, and weekends too. On a highway sign in Australia: Take notice: when this sign is under water, this road is impassable.

Far East

Sign over the information booth in a Beijing railroad station: Question Authority Included with the package of complimentary wares in a Chinese hotel was a pair of workout shorts marked: Uncomplimentary pants. A paragliding site near Beijing has a sign that reads: Site of jumping umbrella. The translation of the Ethnic Minorities Park in Beijing for a long time was Racist Park. Supermarket, Hong Kong: For your convenience, we recommend courteous, efficient self-service. An advertisement by a Hong Kong dentist: Teeth extracted by the latest methodists. The box of a clockwork toy made in Hong Kong: Guaranteed to work throughout its useful life. Booklet about using a hotel air conditioner, Japan: Cooles and heates; if you want condition of warm air in your room, please control yourself. Translated from Japanese to English and included in the instructions for a soap bubble gun: While solution is not toxic, it will not make child edible. A Tokyo hotel's rules and regulations: Guests are requested not to smoke or do other disgusting behaviours in bed. Car rental brochure, Tokyo: When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigour. Hotel room notice, Chiang-Mai, Thailand: Please do not bring solicitors into your room.


In an East African newspaper: A new swimming pool is rapidly taking shape since the contractors have thrown in the bulk of their workers. In a Nairobi restaurant: Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager. On a South African building: Mental Health Prevention Centre. In a South African maternity ward: No Children Allowed.

Mexico and South America

Hotel, Acapulco: The manager has personally passed all the water served here

In a restaurant window: Don't stand there and be hungry. Come on in and get fed up.

Sources: BBC travel, and

Andrew Wenger, founder and director of Same-Sky Languages, has spent a fair proportion of his adult life feeling like a bit of an idiot, which might sound familiar to anyone who deals in languages in any way. Humour is one of the favourite tools in the toolbox of the linguist, whether it is to understand the culture of the target language country, or to tap into the rich mine of hilarity of the whole process of language-learning. If shyness is our number one enemy, then humour - the ability to smile at, and learn from, our own mistakes, is our best friend.

Please contact me here if you would like more information about how to join one of our fun, funny and friendly groups: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese... Other equally hilarious languages available on request.

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