'What the Hell Is a Tim Tam?'

Reducing the Space between Cultures through Electronic Publishing

1In recent times there has been a notable increase in the number of first novels by young Australian authors which have attained international release. Some mentionable titles would be Christos Tsiolkas's Loaded, Andrew McGahan's Praise and Fiona Capp's Night Surfing. These novels, which come brimming with language particular to Australia and to the sub-cultural groupings represented in the texts, seem to have found an eager overseas readership despite what would ordinarily be seen as their untranslatable content. The high levels of culturally-specific brand names, slang, vulgarities and references to popular culture used in these novels should be a hindrance to the effective comprehension of the narratives themselves as well as the culture they portray. Making the specificities of a culture comprehensible to the outside world will always be a difficult task, but the advent of on-line publishing has introduced some interesting possible tactics and some entirely new hurdles for future translators to consider.

2It is problematic to attempt to define a 'culture', and homogeneous languages and cultures do not truly exist, but with every international transfer comes the act of translation which must suppose a certain empirically assessible definition of the psychological space between the source culture of the text and that of its target audience. Texts to be sold internationally are carefully selected and often meticulously renovated to be made comprehensible to a chosen target readership. The notion of a such a reading market presupposes levels of shared knowledge between the two cultures: it requires an assessment of sameness and difference in order to define which portions of the text need to be translated.

3Translation theorist Anthony Pym has asserted the notion that all texts belong to certain peoples or situations and thereby resist translation due to the necessity for the texts to undergo a change of values (beyond the linguistic) when moved away from their apparently rightful place (Pym 102). This suggests that any text has a natural home where the ideal reader probably resides. Thus, even the movement of a text between groups who share a language (for example, from Australia to England or the USA) will require a certain amount of translation to be maximally accessible for the foreign reader.

4 On-line publishing destabilises the levels of control available to publishers and translators. The apparent concerns of royalty payments and copyright are currently under observation, but there is also the radical alteration of the notion of a target book-buying market. A text published electronically is basically available to the world. There are no physical frontiers or issues of stock availability to prevent the text from being read by anyone, anywhere, who has a basic grasp of the language being used in the particular document (and more and more search engines even provide a translation facility that overcomes some of that initial language barrier). Thus, an Australian text can be read by any reader of English irrespective of cultural background or supposed suitability as a receiver.

5 Under the controlled conditions made possible by working towards assumed receiving markets, translators have developed a series of coping mechanisms to overcome the dilemmas of translation difficulties. In some cases, a translator may domesticate a text by exchanging a word for an option which is vaguely similar but is more comprehensible to the target culture (an example might be the replacement of 'vegemite' with 'peanut butter' as was the case in the recent French translation of Sally Morgan's My Place). A second option is to retain the word in its original form, forcing readers to investigate the meaning elsewhere. This works positively for the diligent reader, but there is also a level of reading at which the reader may be happy to 'skip over' the laborious sections while still 'getting the gist' of the storyline. This does little for the development of greater awareness about the source culture or for an understanding of a particular term's appropriateness within the context of the narrative.

6 A third method is to make use of footnotes within the text to explain any untranslatable passages. Opportunities exist here for adding historical data and brief asides which may broaden the reader's understanding of the narrative. Even pictures or maps may be added to help create an ideal reader and collapse the space of potential misunderstanding between the two cultures. This is a positive approach in pedagogical terms but few publishers wish to produce a text which is three times longer than the original. There is also the risk here, as Pym has stated, of rendering the text more sociological than narrative (Pym 87). In addition, the eye's constant retreat to the bottom of the page makes the text disjointed and may sacrifice poetic allusions.

7One exciting advantage of electronic publishing, in terms of translatability of culturally-specific language, is the potential for the use of hypertext links as a sort of intratextual footnote. While preserving the basic form of the original text and not visually disrupting the narrative, Internet links can be used to provide immediate access to all manner of educational information.

8To illustrate these points, one need only look at one of the Australian novels in question, Nick Earls's Zigzag Street, which has recently been translated into German and has been warmly embraced by readers of English around the world. Barely a page can be turned in this text without the reader discovering another culturally-specific reference. The following haphazardly abridged portion of Chapter 37 is exemplary of the frequency of such problematic language:

9The car doesn't start...I call the RACQ...I sit out on the bonnet with a big pile of toast with Vegemite on it...me and my old Laser...I drive and I sing along to Triple J... At around 2 o'clock I walk up to Wee Willie Winkie's on Waterworks Road...and I buy a packet of Tim Tams...I buy a banana Paddle Pop and eat it on the way home.

10Zigzag Street has been released in English outside of Australia without alteration despite Earls's usage of terms which may not even resonate with Australian readers outside the text's Brisbane home, let alone with other English-speaking communities. This humorous tale of a young man's personal development in the face of adversity has engaged readers world-wide, yet press coverage and fan mail still query the real meanings of strange and exotic words like 'Tim Tam'. What hypertext offers is a space-saving, non-disruptive opportunity to imbue a text with additional information about seemingly untranslatable terms.

11If Zigzag Street were published electronically and came with Internet links, the reader might have the opportunity to more extensively understand the implications of the Australian vernacular in use. Tim Tams, for example, have a social role beyond their being a biscuit (as virtual currency in offices and the providers of solace to the downtrodden and dumped). This is an intracultural meaning attributed to that particular signifier which could not be understood without explanation. The reader can no doubt judge that Triple J is some form of music, but a jump to the Triple J Website allows him or her to say 'this is a radio station, primarily aimed at young people, it supports certain political agendas, it plays a certain type of music...', thus understanding the motivations of the character, the events of the story and, importantly, a little bit more about the source culture.

12The use of hypertext links cannot fully translate culturally-specific references, only first-hand experience of the culture can do that. But in the few examples made apparent in the short paragraph from Zigzag Street, hypertext provides a level of comprehension of the text beyond that which is possible through traditional footnotes. The reader is able to partially experience the source culture of the text (by at least knowing what a Tim Tam looks like or by listening to Triple J -- whose site now comes with a RealAudio feature) rather than standing at a distance making vague and frequently misguided assumptions about the culture or conducting an unproductive reading which simply ignores the culturally-specific terminology.

13In terms of form and the retention of a smooth narrative flow, the text is not technically disjointed. At the same time however, the reading of text will be a non-linear experience at the discretion of the reader. It has been said that this is reflective of the way we usually approach a text; that is, jumping between thoughts which we then associate with each other to build a network of concepts. Hypertext parallels human cognition in this way and allows for deeper exploration and interpretation of the text's culture of origin (Balasubramanian 5).

14Though entertaining, the translations of food and brand names may seem like flippant examples. Yet, it is easy to see the importance of the principles if they were appropriated to cases of historical data or ideologies which may be wrongly interpreted by the international reading market. (This is not to say that Tim Tams are not very, VERY important social documents.) Of course no reading of the text will arrive at the reader without mediation in terms of the links chosen for the site. As with all translations, there are political and ethical decisions to be made in conjunction with the semantic ones.

15It should also be stated that the advantages lie mainly in the domain of intralingual translation projects and that few novels are currently published in their entirety on the Internet. There are, however, many abstracts, short stories, journals and other documents laden with similar levels of cultural information which can benefit from this innovation.

16The introduction of the Internet has reduced the physical distance between cultural groupings by making information about any given culture immediately available to the entire world. It is translation, however, that initiates the reduction in the psychological space between cultures. Innovative use of the Internet's potential for translation could make intercultural communication a much smoother and more interesting project resulting in a feeling for the reader of inclusion, rather than intrusion on the source culture of a text.