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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

The accidental tourist

Online translations can be fatal, especially if there's primed AK-47s lying around.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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I' VE ALWAYS WANTED TO VISIT THE MIDDLE-EAST, Oman in particular. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Oman is about as far as you can get from Eye-Rack and still be in the Middle East . Secondly, despite the precariously tilting Musandam Peninsula that leans insouciantly towards Iran - and its axis of evil, oil and bewildered mullahs wondering what Bush is on about - there's a healthy strip of ocean separating the two. Thus emboldened, travellers will no doubt head straight for their guidebooks, modern translators in hand.

This is a dangerous mistake. Rocket-propelled grenades are launched periodically at aircraft around Baghdad . Elsewhere in the Middle East , people routinely fire AK-47s into the air, regardless of air traffic control protocol that clearly stipulates this is a waste of bullets unless there's a civilian airliner around. All this is simply to ensure that the US-sanctioned no-fly zones are enforced so Iraq may one day emerge with dignity and democracy minus the decibels. But these are the sorts of things that add colour to journeys and inspire the delightful jottings that travellers leave behind in diaries: "Goodbye John. We're being hijacked to Rio . I am so looking forward to acquiring a tan, a decent lover, and a foreign accent. Give my love to the kids and tell your mother she's a hideous fat cow."

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The aforementioned danger, of course, refers to the language translation process. This is fraught with peril, no more so than in our hi-tech age where computers embellish the English language - and other tongues - in ways that would make your former school headmaster spin like a dervish in his grave. Take this innocuous first paragraph from the Lonely Planet Oman Guide . " Oman is slowly emerging from its hermit shell, revealing a land of friendly people and dramatic landscapes peppered with forts."

In Iraq, people routinely fire AK-47s into the air to help strictly enforce the US-backed no-fly zone

I ran this sentence through an online translation service. In Japanese it would read something like: " As for Oman slowly it has appeared from the shell of the amicable people who the castle stronghold are sprinkled and the hermit who makes the land of dramatic view clear." Absolutely. In the Italian translation you would be peering expectantly for "dramatic landscapes of pepper mills and forts". This must perplex the Omani no end. Needless to add, those flash-popping Japanese tourist have failed to materialise.

Yet, modern travellers must thank these alphabet-mutating translation devices for, without them, we would be lost. A multilingual tour de force is on display at the website, Lost In Translation, (http://www.tashian.com/perl/multibabel.cgi ). Type in your phrase, hit the "Babelize" key and watch the rivers of liberated consonants flow. Here's one choice translation. "I visited Bath but my wailing baby made it hard for my mother-in-law who is a serious pest." In Japanese: " I visited the bathroom, but that it could point the baby where I wail hard for my mother of the law which is the serious noxious insect."

Or try, " Only a fool - or an Englishman - would ride an Indian train in the height of summer." In French, a direct computer translation comes out as: " Only one imbecile - or an English - would mount an Indian train to the size of the summer." Quite right, far better to mount Dolly the Sheep.

By the time he returned home, the kids had grown up, got married, divorced, remarried and moved to a gay colony on Mars

Fortunately, readymade online translations are at hand for key phrases you might need on the road. I looked for "useful Thai phrases" on Google to find one sequence that was straight to the point. Rather aptly, the sentences read - "Do you like me?" "I am serious about you." "Do you have a boyfriend?" "I think I have fallen in love with you." "Can I meet your parents?" This is almost as helpful as a powerful phrase I found in the Lonely Planet Thai Phrasebook : "I can lift this vehicle." Just ensure you are not standing next to a city bus when you make this awesome boast.

Some useful phrases for Iraq could include: "Of course you may point that humungous gun at my genitals." "Yes please, it would be an honour to ride in the trunk of your car to Fallujah." Think about this the next time you're in the back of Bourke setting up the barbie and downing some bonzer grog. Hurrah for the Web.

Some things are lost in translation, others in transit. Like the savvy traveller who sped through San Francisco airport to catch his Oakland shuttle. Nine hours into the flight it dawned on him - and the crew - that he was headed, inexorably, for Auckland . In all likelihood, with his flair for picking up frequent flier miles, by the time he returned home, the kids had grown up, married, divorced, remarried and moved to a gay colony on Mars. There's a moral to this tale. Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But keep a dictionary handy.

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