A Discursive-Semiotic Approach to Translating Cultural Aspects in Persuasive Advertisements
ilze bezuidenhout


A discursive-semiotic approach to translating cultural aspects in persuasive advertisements.


Advertisements are a reflection of society. During the past fifty years advertisements have become an inseparable part of the life of consumers, which means everyone who has ever spent money in order to survive. The phenomenon of advertising exists in all market systems. The way it is regulated and thus impacts on the receivers varies from system to system, but it undoubtedly influences society to behave in a certain way. In a capitalist society, such as South Africa, advertising creates the need for products and services that could be – rightfully so – indispensable or, more probably, just to enhance your lifestyle.

Secondary functions include the transmission of information and entertaining. However, advertisements never exist merely to fulfil these functions, the overriding function is to persuade the consumer to do or think something.

Advertising has infiltrated every sphere of society: arts, culture, sport, fashion, politics and even religion, the reason being that no discipline can survive in a competitive market without advertising itself or being used by products/companies as a vehicle to promote itself. It stands to reason that advertisements yield great economic and cultural power and significance in dictating norms, values, lifestyles and consumer trends.

Advertisements have become a mirror of consumer needs and aspirations, but also a generator of higher ideals and wants. Advertisers and marketers thus "generate systems of meaning, prestige, and identity by associating their products with certain life-styles, symbolic values, and pleasures" (Kellner: WWW).

Advertisements are no longer just transmitters of functional product information but of social symbolic information that contributes to the shaping of cultural tendencies within society. Kellner (WWW) points out that "goods function as ‘communicators’ and ‘satisfiers’ – they inform and mediate social relations, telling individuals what they must buy to become fashionable, popular, and successful while inducing them to buy particular products to reach these goals".

From the above one can surmise that advertisements are cultural markers. Leiss, Kline and Jhally (1986: 7) are of the opinion that "advertising is not just a business expenditure undertaken in the hope of moving merchandise off the store shelves, but is rather an integral part of modern culture". However, currently the global trend is towards multinational, culturally non-differentiating advertising that has had a significant impact on society.

Advertisements are not created in a cultural void; they are anchored within a certain culture with all its sub-cultures. The language used in the advertisement is not a direct indication of the culture, but a sign system used to communicate in that culture. Signs and symbols particular to a specific culture add to the meaning in advertisements. Behaviour, customs, habits, beliefs and norms form the basis of a culture, and differentiate one culture from another on the basis of this.

A problem arises when advertisements created in one culture have to be translated for use in another culture. It does not merely imply finding linguistic equivalents in the target language. A social frame of reference has to be recreated in another culture. The problem is further complicated when the translation takes place in a country where the cultural boundaries have been blurred.

Such a problem exists in South Africa, where there are eleven official languages but many more cultures. Historically, English has been the language of commerce and industry in South Africa and thus also the advertising industry. Up to 1994, when the first democratic elections took place, English and Afrikaans were the two official languages. Advertisers were forced by law to produce advertisements for a product in both languages. Because money was a constraint, most advertisers created advertisements in English and then had them translated to fulfil the legal requirements.

Since the inception of the new government, Afrikaans has lost much of its political power and consequently fewer advertisements appear in Afrikaans, despite the fact that Afrikaans is the third largest spoken language in a country with an approximate population of 42 million. This point is illustrated by Afrikaans copywriter Johan Roux (1998: 22): "By Ogilvy & Mather, die grootste agentskap, word sowat 12% van die reklame in Afrikaans gedoen." In other words, the rest of the advertisements are conceptualised in English and then translated.

However, the problem of translating English advertisements into Afrikaans is complex. The situation not only demands linguistic and cultural skills from the translator, but s/he has to bear social and demographic issues in mind. Firstly, a specific and demarcated English or Afrikaans culture cannot be clearly defined. Secondly, people from various cultural orientations (black ethnic, naturalised immigrants) have English or Afrikaans as a mother tongue, but still cling to their own culture and customs.

The language, Afrikaans, offers cultural signs born of the frame of reference of the white Afrikaner, including concepts, idiomatic expression, customs, norms, famous historic figures and general descriptions that have become embedded in the Afrikaans culture and vocabulary.

Also, Afrikaans has been treated as the language of the oppressor: white Afrikaners, and thus culturally speaking many people (the so-called coloureds) who could be classified as Afrikaners, chose to speak and educate their children in English. The white (Afrikaner) and coloured cultures share many cultural traits but, more importantly, a language that acts as the binding factor between these two groups.

However, the attitude towards Afrikaans is changing, and more and more Afrikaans speakers (across the board) are unifying to support and celebrate Afrikaans as a language and a culture. A new term has been coined by Punt Radio, an all-Afrikaans talk radio station, namely Afrikaanses. The new status of Afrikaans can be attributed, to a large extent, to the power and idiomatic expressiveness of the language, and to the fact that Afrikaans is a product of the people and the country. But the new status of Afrikaans compounds the problem of translating advertisements into Afrikaans, and the transference of cultural aspects. The same can be said for transferring certain Afrikaans cultural aspects and idiomatic expressions into English.

South Africa is not unique in having to deal with the transference of cultural aspects in the translation of persuasive advertisements. Belgium has three cultural groupings: French, Flemish and German. The two official languages are French and Flemish (a Dutch dialect in the spoken form, but standard Dutch in the written form). The south of the country is called Wallonia and is French-speaking, and the north is called Flanders and is Flemish-speaking. An imaginative and symbolic border divides the country. A small German population resides in the eastern part of the country, on the border with Germany. The situation in Belgium concerning translation and cultural transference in persuasive advertisements offers some insights and possible solutions to the situation in South Africa.

An instrument has to be found to deal with cultural aspects when translating from one culture into another. In addition to this requirement, the instrument should be able to isolate foreign influences (whether cultural aspects or language) and assess the appropriateness in the South African context.