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



Norman Fairclough (1992: 65) states that:

Discursive practice …contributes to reproducing society (social identities, social relationships, systems of knowledge and belief) as it is, yet also contributes to transforming society.

This statement sums up the role of discourse analysis in the translation of cultural aspects in persuasive advertisements. It can be inferred that society, as defined by Fairclough, points to cultural identity. Discursive practice, like a persuasive advertisement, changes or manipulates the receivers in a society or culture to alter their behaviour or "transform society".

But the same can be said for semiotics, where verbal and non-verbal signs produce meaning, which lead to the creation of social relationships, systems of knowledge and thus cultural identity. The individual signs and their combinations are manipulated to perform a persuasive function in advertisements (in the text and context), which alters the behaviour of the receivers accordingly.

Introduction to semiotics

Humans, like most animals, are able to communicate verbally and non-verbally. Humans use language in verbal communication and signs, symbols, sound or paralinguistic means to communicate a message. However, humans, unlike animals, have cultural identities. The semiosis (sign processing) takes place within this cultural orientation.

Patrick Vyncke (1996: 2) describes this phenomenon as follows:

Nu is er recent een wetenschap tot ontwikkeling gekomen die zich in het bijzonder, en op een bijzondere manier, met deze communicatie- en cultuurprocessen inlaat. Het bijzondere van deze wetenschap schuilt hem onder meer hierin dat zij…deze communicatie- en cultuurprocessen zondermeer als vergelijkbare fenomenen bestudeert, namelijk als betekenisprocessen: processen waarbij betekenissen worden gecreërd en/of geïnterpreteerd, processen via dewelke betekenissen worden overgedragen tussen mensen en via dewelke betekenissen circuleren binnen een cultuurgemeenschap, processen waarbij we m.a.w. aan onszelf en onze leefwereld betekenis toekennen.

Semiotics analysis provides the translator with means to deal with signs in a persuasive advertisement which reflect a cultural identity.

Winfried Nöth (1990: 476) emphasises the usefulness of semiotics by saying:

…semiotics provides the theoretical tools for the analysis of signs and communication process in advertising…semiotics expands the analytic horizon from the verbal message in the narrower sense to the multiplicity of codes used in persuasive communication.

By analysing the signs and semiosis in the source culture, the translator can identify their functions and transfer them into a target language (and culture) by finding equivalents in the target culture. This section will focus on the theories of Charles Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure regarding signs and semiosis that will enable the translator to apply aspects of discourse analysis in conjunction with semiotic analysis in dealing with cultural aspects in persuasive advertisements during the translation process.

It should be noted that Peirce provides insights and theories that serve as theoretical background information, but are difficult to "translate" into practical ideas. De Saussure provides one with more tangible and applicable information and theory that can be used to examine an advertisement semiotically and then translate it.

Semiotics defined

In order to establish the use and necessity of semiotics for translation purposes, one needs to provide a background against which the concepts and terminology as well as the tools of the trade can be discussed.

The framework can be summarised into the following three fields of study:

  1. The sign. This entails the study of the various types of signs, and the different ways they have of conveying meaning, and the way they relate to the people who use them.
  2. That to which the sign refers. In other words, the codes or systems into which signs are organised. This includes the ways that various codes have developed to meet the needs of a society or culture, or to exploit the channels of communication available for their transmission.
  3. The users of the sign. In other words, the culture within which these codes and signs operate.

(Fiske 1982: 43).

Ferdinand de Saussure (cited in Hawkes 1977: 123), father of the study of semiotics, defined this phenomenon in what was to become a very well-known statement:

A science that studies the life of signs within a society is conceivable; it would be a part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion ‘sign’). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them. Since the science does not yet exist, no one can say what it would be; but it has a right to existence, a place staked out in advance. Linguistics is only a part of the general science of semiology; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics…

Saussure used the term semiology, whereas Peirce used the term semiotics. Confusion can occur between these two concepts. In this dissertation, semiotics will be used, whereas the process of semiotics or sign-processing will be called semiosis.

Peirce defined signs as follows:

…Signs in general [are] a class which includes pictures, symptoms, words, sentences, books, libraries, signals, orders of command, microscopes, legislative representatives, musical concertos, performances of these… (cited in Gorleé 1994: 50).

From this statement it can be inferred that Peirce intended the scope of semiotics to extend beyond the linguistic signs used in human communication. For Peirce semiotics involved the systematic study of signs, sign systems or structures, sign processes, and sign functions. From a Peircean perspective, signs transcend linguistic barriers and would thus include verbal and non-verbal signs.

Daniel Chandler (WWW) is of the opinion that semiotics seeks to analyse media texts as structured wholes and is rarely quantitative. Persuasive advertisements (which are discourse that appears in media) function as structured wholes. It is important that the different elements and their position within their context are studied as a whole and not merely as different parts of the bigger picture. Individual elements have significance and will generate certain meaning, but it is imperative that the context and the collective meaning of the signs are examined and translated. Woollacott (in Woollacott, Gurevitch, Bennett & Curran 1982: 93) confirms this by stating that:

…semiotic studies focus on the system of rule governing the ‘discourse’ involved in media texts, stressing the role of semiotic context in shaping meaning.


As said before, Ferdinand de Saussure was the founding father of semiotics, but his views on semiotics focus on linguistic aspects of signs and semiosis. Charles Peirce, on the other hand, offers a broader plane on which to work.

In order to find practical applications and hints to use for the semiotic translation, the differences and similarities between the views held by De Saussure and Peirce have to be compared.

De Saussure’s dyad

De Saussure described a language as a system of signs which have meaning by virtue of their relationships to each other (Cook 1992: 61).

Every sign consists of (1) a signifier (the form which the sign takes), and (2) the signified (the concept it represents). The relationship between the signifier and the signified is called "signification". Thus the signifier is the term for the sign itself (the image); and the signified refers to the mental concept.

Diagrammatically it would look like this:

Sign: chair
Signifier: the letters c-h-a-i-r
Signified concept: the category chair
Sign: signifier

(Chandler: WWW)

De Saussure emphasised that the signified and the signifier were inseparable; and referred to the signifier in terms of a "sound image", and to the signified as a mental image. Each sign has meaning by virtue of its place in the system. This model excludes any reference to an object in the world, as opposed to Peirce’s view.

De Saussure, a linguist, was mainly interested in language, and the way signs (words) related to other signs (words) rather than to an object. To him the signified would be common to members of the same culture who share the same language. He stressed the arbitrariness of the sign by saying that there is no necessary connection between the signifier and the signified.

If semiotic principles are to be applied to advertisements, this would pose a problem, the reason being that within a persuasive advertisement, the signified and the signifier must be connected in some way for the reader to be able to generate meaning from the signs and to act upon that message. Therefore one would need a reference to the world, a social context.

Peirce’s triad

Peirce had definite views on what a sign is:

A sign is anything which determines something else (its interpretant) to refer to an object to which itself refers (its object) in the same way, the interpretant becoming in turn a sign" (Peirce 1931-1935: 228).

In contrast to De Saussure, who focused on language, Peirce casts his net wide by including the following under the term sign:

…every picture, diagram, natural cry, pointing finger, wink, knot in one’s handkerchief, memory, dream, fancy, concept, indication, token, symptom, letter, numeral, word, sentence, chapter, book, library (Gorlée 1994: 50).

To him everything can be a sign, in other words anything that is perceptible, knowable or imaginable. But for it to act as a sign, "it must enter into a relationship with its object, be interpreted, and thus produce a new sign, its interpretant" (Gorlée, 1994: 50).

Peirce sees the sign, its interpretant and object in terms of a triangle. Each element is dependent on the other and can only be understood in relation to the others. The sign refers to something other than itself – the object, and is understood by somebody: in other words, it has an effect in the mind of the user - the interpretant.

One can see similarities between Peirce’s sign and De Saussure’s signifier, and Peirce’s interpretant and De Saussure’s signified, but De Saussure is not concerned with the relationship of Peirce’s object or external meaning (Fiske 1982: 47).

Types of signs and meaning

The primary function of signs is to create or generate meaning. A specific sign will generate different meanings depending on the culture in which it takes place. A sign can create multiple meanings or a single one; the relationship between signs can generate a different set of meanings; a sign is active and always generates some meaning.

Fiske (1982: 49) is of the opinion that meaning is the result of the dynamic interaction between sign, interpretant and object: it is historically located and may change with time. In terms of persuasive advertisements communicating with its receivers, this opinion is very relevant. The receiver has to generate meaning from the sign (whether verbal or non-verbal), and its relationship with its object and interpretant, and react to that by doing what the advertisement asks of him.

Peirce produced three types of signs, each of which conveys meaning, and has a different relationship between the sign, its object or that to which it refers.

He wrote that:

…every sign is determined by its object, either first, by partaking in the character of the object, when I call the sign an Icon; secondly, by being really in its individual existence connected with the individual object, when I call the sign an Index; thirdly, by more or less approximate certainty that it will be interpreted as denoting the object in sequence of a habit… when I call the sign a Symbol.

(in Fiske 1982: 51).


This type of sign resembles its object in some way: it looks or sounds like it. Visual sign are good examples of icons, such as a photograph, map, and diagram; in the case of language onomatopoeia (verbal) is iconic.


For this sign there is no resemblance or connection between it and the object. A symbol’s connection with its object is a matter of convention, rule or agreement between the users. Words are a symbol. Examples include a red traffic light or the word Stop.


This sign is directly connected in some way (existentially or causally) to its object. For instance, a sneeze signifies a cold or smoke is an index of fire.

These signs are not mutually exclusive: something can be an icon and a symbol, or any combination. Film and television, and thus advertisements that use these media, use all these types of signs: icon (sound and image), symbol (speech and writing), and index (the effect of what is filmed) (Chandler: WWW).

Types of messages

Signs generate meaning individually and as a structured whole in a specific context. As indicated, there are different types of signs that, as a result, can create different types of messages in the communication process, such as a persuasive advertisement.

Roman Jakobson (1970: 33) is of the opinion that semiotics is the pivotal science of communication. Communication is concerned with the formulation and encoding of messages by senders; these messages are then transmitted via mediums, and the "decoding and interpretation of these messages by destinations and their signification". The communication process (and semiosis too) takes place within a context that affects its receivers, and in turn is affected by its context.

Central to the communication process is the message that is encoded within a certain context; the context can influence the decoding of the message. There are different types of semiotic messages. They are iconic, indexical or symbolic. According to Jakobson (1970: 26):

Most messages are a combination of two or three aspects, stacked in contextually appropriate hierarchy, which shifts over times as the context alters.

An iconic message resembles some agent of the real world to which it refers. An indexical message "points to" an object or is a sample of that object. A symbolic message's relationship to the state of affairs that it purports to represent is arbitrary; in other words it is understandable because of a pre-existing social convention which specifies that the message will, to all who concur, stand for thus-and-so (Sebeok 1976: 121).

Organisation of signs

De Saussure organised signs (or units of meaning) into codes by means of two methods, namely paradigms and syntagms. These two dimensions are often presented as axes, where the vertical axis is the paradigmatic and the horizontal axis the syntagmatic. According to Chandler (WWW) the plane of the paradigm is that of selection, while the plane of the syntagm is that of combination. All messages involve an amount of selection (from the paradigm) and combination (into a syntagm).

Paradigm and paradigmatic analysis

A paradigm is a classification of signs which are all members of some defining category, but in which each sign is significantly different. An example is the alphabet that forms the paradigm for written language, or the vocabulary of any natural language. The medium or genre used by a particular media text is also a paradigm that derives meaning from the ways in which it differs from alternative media or genres.

Paradigms must have these two basic characteristics:

All the units/elements in a paradigm must have something in common: they must share characteristics.

Each unit/element must be clearly distinguished from all the others in the paradigm (Fiske 1982: 61).

The paradigmatic analysis of a text examines patterns other than the surface structure of a text. The use of one paradigm rather than another is also of great significance as are underlying thematic paradigms such as binary oppositions (nature/technology).

Syntagms and syntagmatic analysis

A syntagm is a combination of interacting signs which forms a meaningful whole (also called a chain) (Chandler: WWW). When a unit/element from a paradigm has been chosen and combined with other units, a syntagm is formed.

According to Fiske (1982: 62) the important aspect of syntagms is the rules or conventions (explicit or inexplicit) by which the combination of units is made. In the case of language it would be called grammar or syntax.

From the above one can see two forms of structural relationships forming: paradigmatic, in other words a relationship of choice; and syntagmatic, a relationship of combination.

A syntagmatic analysis of a media text involves the study of its narrative sequence. According to Griffiths (WWW), syntagmatic analysis gives on overview of a media text as a narrative sequence or a sequence of signs, while paradigmatic analysis studies patterns other than those classed as sequential, within that media text. For the purposes of this dissertation it is not essential to discuss narratology.

In the case of television or advertisements made for television or films, the syntagmatic analysis would involve the analysis of every shot, scene or sequence and how these relate to each other.