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


Advertisements are marketing tools used in a communication process to send a message to receivers (consumers), who will react or respond in a certain way.

Communication is derived from the Latin word communis, which means common. Communication is the process of commonness of thought between a sender and a receiver of a message:

Both sender and receiver must be active participants in the same communicative relationship in order for thought to be shared (Dunn, Barban, Krugman & Reid 1990: 51).

Meaning can thus only be achieved when the sender and receiver share a thought or idea. In persuasive advertisements it is assumed that both parties share this thought.

In order to understand the communication of advertisements, three basic concepts have to be taken into account: field of experience, meaning and signs and symbols (Dunn et al 1990: 51-52). These aspects will be elaborated upon in the section on semiotic analysis.

The field of experience refers to the receiver’s total life experiences. Contextual and textual elements are used by the advertiser to refer to a specific group of receivers’ experiences. This is closely linked to culture and cultural identity where certain elements such as customs or idiomatic language are used to send a message to the receiver.

Meaning is created by signs that evoke certain meanings. Again cultural orientation plays a role here. Stubbs (1983: 8) states that "the general vision is of culture as comprising interlocking systems of meaning". These signs can either be textual or contextual elements such as a poem or music. One can distinguish between connotative, contextual and denotative meaning. Denotative meaning refers to the literal association with objects or words. Connotative meaning refers to the derived connotations of the individual towards a concept or word. Contextual meaning refers to the surroundings in which the advertisement’s message takes place (Dunn et al 1990: 54).

In order to place the above-mentioned in a frame of reference, one should look at the communication model and the functions of the different elements.

Model of communication

One of the classical models of the communication process is that of Roman Jakobson. According to Jakobson (1960) in every concrete speech act the addresser sends a message to the addressee; the message uses a code (usually a language that is known to both the addresser and addressee); the message has a context (or referent) and is transmitted through a contact (a medium such as live speech or writing). Each one of these aspects has a linguistic function in the communication process.

If the emphasis is on the sender's role in the process, an emotive function would be apparent (which would for example emphasise the role of the narrator); if the emphasis is on the receiver, a conative function would be involved; if the context is of importance, the referential function would be at work; emphasising the used code involves a meta-lingual function, while emphasising the contact gives preference to the phatic function (Seldon & Widdowson 1993: 4).

If the orientation is towards the message, the poetic or aesthetic function will be at work. This function will be the focus of discussion in this section.

Diagrammatically the communication process looks like this:


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The function of the message of a persuasive advertisement is the reason for its existence. The message is as successful as the desired response elicited from the receiver; the symbiosis is inevitable and necessary. The communication situation in which discourse is produced and processed can be broken down into the various factors which can influence the possible aims of the discourse. According to Halliday and Hasan (1989:12) the "act sequence" is of great importance as is the relation between form and content of a message, the place where the communication takes place, the social role of the participants and the norms attached to it.

It follows thus that culture plays an inevitable role in the communication situation. Culture is "what everyone knows, and part of this knowledge is conversational competence" (Stubbs 1983: 8). It can be said that language (together with its different functions) is embedded in the culture due to the shared knowledge.


Eugene Nida (1964: 120) notes that the production of equivalent messages is a process of matching different part of speech, but also reproducing "the total dynamic character of the communication". In other words, the text and the context have to be considered.

The message of a persuasive advertisement relies on the text and the context to interact and thus produce meaning. Language and context are based on the culture and its sign systems in which the advertisement was created. Language (as a sign system) is a cultural vehicle that reflects the society and its values in which a communicative event takes place. Non-linguistic signs (which form part of the context) determine the cultural framework in which linguistic signs function. The task of the translator is to find a translation theory to deal with cultural aspects in the transference of sign meaning into a target language.

The message consists of two different aspects: (1) the signal, including all the formal features of the message; and (2) the content, that is the meaning of the signal. Together with these the channel must also be considered: whether it is in spoken or written form or a combination as in the case of television advertisements (Nida 1964: 122).

In semiotic terms the message could consist of the signs generated by the language used (signal), and of the meaning generated by these signs (content). The meaning of the message could be altered or influenced should any change be made to the signal or content. The message is dependent on the generating of signs, by whatever means, to convey and strengthen its function.

Nida (1964: 120) suggests five important phases of communication that have to be considered when translating. These phases are of the utmost relevance to advertisements.

They are:

  • the subject matter, in other words the referents that are talked about;
  • the participants who take part in the communication;
  • the speech act or the process of writing;
  • the code used, that is the language, including all its symbols and arrangements; and
  • the message, that is the particular way in which the subject matter is encoded into specific symbols and arrangements.

According to Nida (1964: 129) all messages can normally consist of a maximum of 50% redundancy in terms of the communication load. This limit of unpredictability is often exaggerated when a translator uses rare forms of words, unusual syntax, strange combinations of words and unfamiliar themes. As a result, the receiver will have problems in decoding the message. In the case of translating advertisements between different cultures which are not closely related, there could be an added problem of new concepts being created that are not accessible to the average receiver. A further problem would be that the receivers differ in their capacity to decode the message, in other words some could be highly educated adults, while others might be newly or partially literate teenagers.