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


Intertextuality is one of the standards of textuality in discourse analysis but is also relevant and applied in semiotic analysis. Intertextuality refers to those characteristics known to the reader because s/he has came across them in other texts before.

The semiotic notion of intertextuality as introduced by Julia Kristeva is associated primarily with post-structuralist theorists (Chandler: WWW). Texts are framed by other texts in various ways. For example, within a film (one frame) an advertisement (another frame) of a product can be shown, such as a billboard in scene. The film, in turn, is part of the genre film or movies. Within semiotics genres can be seen as systems or codes. Each example of a genre utilises conventions that link it to other members of that genre (Chandler: WWW).

Advertisements, as an example of media texts, cannot exist without other discourse types. One can say that it is parasitic in that it borrows elements from all discourse types, and then uses it for its own purposes. Chandler (WWW) supports this view by stating that texts provide contexts within which other texts may be created and interpreted.

Advertisements are not islands unto themselves. They exist in various genres and media. Cook (1992: 29) supports this by saying that "…ads typically occur together with, or embedded in, other discourses, to which they make no direct reference".

Advertisements appear in all mass media, and are ever expanding into hitherto unknown territory such as education. In some cases a company sponsors educational projects in return for displaying their product name in various forms.

Advertisements, especially on television, often allude to other advertisements of the same product (such as a series of advertisements for the same product) or are created as spoofs of films, or television personalities or programmes.

They could also indirectly refer to advertisements of competitive products such as the competition between Pepsi and Coca-Cola. (In South Africa, however, this type of overt comparative advertising is not allowed.)

Finally, mention should be made of Barthes’ concept of anchorage (Chandler: WWW). Linguistic elements can serve to anchor or constrain the preferred reading of an image, and conversely, the illustrative use of an image can anchor an ambiguous verbal text. For the translator this could be useful, in that the meaning attached to an image is limited and thus it is easier to translate the text. In other words, it limits the options for interpretation.


Semiotic theory provides the translator with tools and a non-linguistic perspective when dealing with persuasive advertisements. However, the translator needs a translation method/theory to carry out the transference of cultural elements from one language into another in order to achieve an equivalent message in the target language and thus an equivalent response from the receivers/consumers.

Gideon Toury (1980: 12) explains translation in terms of the above statement as follows:

The type of process which I have in mind involves transfer operations performed on one semiotic entity, belonging to a certain system, to generate another semiotic entity, belonging to a different system. In other words, this category of processes is inter- (or, rather, cross-) systemic.

A specific culture (for instance Flemish) would represent one semiotic entity or system. This entity would incorporate linguistic and non-linguistic elements. Translating an advertisement from culture 1 to culture 2 would thus entail the transfer of signs between two systems.

Toury (1980: 12) points out that the transfer situation involves certain relationships, namely:

  • between each one of the two entities and the system within which it is situated (in other words, how acceptable is this entity to the norms of the system); and
  • between the two entities themselves (in other words, the level of equivalence or correspondence).

In a translation situation this means that (i) the signs in the target text must be acceptable to the users in that sign system, i.e. the culture, and (ii) the meaning (and thus the message) generated by the signs in the target text must have an equivalent effect on the receivers, i.e. the same effect as on the source text receivers.

In order to aid the translator in achieving these goals, guidelines have to be drawn up to provide the necessary assistance.


When a translator is confronted with the task of analysing an advertisement (whether printed, television or radio) s/he has to set out to achieve one objective: to have an equivalent effect on the receivers in the target language and culture. This means that the advertiser had certain aims in mind that s/he embedded in the message of the source text/advertisement.

The proposed questions to analyse advertisements semiotically should serve as guidelines and not as rules cast in stone. The approach is to set questions and then to find answers based on the questions posed, which will be done in the chapter on the application of the theory.

The first set of questions deals with linguistic matters. The questions marked with an * are freely adapted from Jib Fowles (cited in Chandler: WWW).

Language-oriented questions

  • What precisely is being advertised? *
  • Who is the intended audience? *
  • What suggests this? *
  • What part is played by words (choice, typography/voice-over, number, sentences or not)? *
  • What inferences must the reader/viewer/listener make to understand the advertisement? *
  • What intertextual references are made?
  • Is humour used? How and what?
  • What do you think is the preferred reading/understanding of the text?
  • What are the alternative interpretations, if any?
  • What is the source text message?
  • Are there any language irregularities (e.g. play on words, incorrect/adjusted spelling)?
  • Are there any neologisms or archaisms?
  • What cultural references are made? What assumptions and values prevail?
  • Are there ideological names, events or people?
  • Are there national symbols? What do they signify?
  • What are the references to time, place, people, and historic events?
  • What is the style?
  • What is the register?
  • What is the tone?
  • Is the text written/spoken in the first, or third person?
  • What is the length of the sentences? Do they vary?
  • Any poetic devices such as rhyme and rhythm?

And in the case of radio and television advertisements:

  • When and where are the voice inflections?
  • Are accents being used? What are they?
  • Does the choice of language reflect a specific sub-culture or group, e.g. teenagers?
Questions for semiotic analysis

The questions marked with an * are freely adapted from Daniel Chandler (WWW).

Identifying the sign

  • Determine what the sign is, what medium was used, the genre to which the text belongs and the context in which it was found. *
  • What are the signs, the objects and the interpretants?
  • What do they signify? What is their relationship?
  • What reality claims are made? *
  • Does the advertisement allude to being fact or fiction? *

Paradigmatic analysis

  • What paradigms are evident? What do they have in common?
  • What is the context of the advertisement?
  • To which class of paradigms (medium, genre, theme) does the advertisement belong?
  • How might a change of medium affect the message and meanings generated?
  • What paradigms are noticeably absent? *
  • What contrasted pairs are evident?
  • What connotative meanings are suggested?
  • Substitute one paradigm with another and assess the effect. *

Syntagmatic analysis

  • Identify and describe syntagmatic structures that take forms such as narrative, argument or montage. *
  • What is the relationship between the signifiers? Are some more important than others?
  • What is the text used?
  • What is the relationship between the text and the context?
  • How does the sequential or spatial arrangement of the elements influence meaning? *

Metonyms and metaphors

  • What metaphors and metonyms are used?
  • How do they shape and influence the meaning of the text?
  • What influence do they have on the context?


  • Does the advertisement refer to other genres? *
  • What are they?
  • How does this influence the reading/understanding of the advertisement?
  • Does it allude to or compare with other texts within the genre? *
  • Does one code within the text (for instance a caption to an advertisement) serve to "anchor" another? If so, how? *

Semiotic codes

  • Which codes are specific to the medium? *
  • Which codes are shared with other media? *
  • How do the codes involved relate to each other (e.g. words and images)? *
  • Are the codes broadcast or narrowcast?
  • What relationship does the text seek with the readers/receivers?
  • What is the mode of address?
  • What cultural/ideological assumptions are made?
  • To whom are these assumptions directed?
  • What is the preferred reading in the source text?
  • Why?
  • How far does this reflect or depart from dominant cultural values? *
  • How open to interpretation does the sign seem to be? *

Benefits of semiotic analysis

  • What insights has this analysis offered?
  • What is the use of this for the translator?
  • What other strategies should the translator use to ensure a dynamically equivalent translation of an advertisement?
Communication test

For the translator the choice of one paradigm over another in a specific context has great significance. The choice of a specific paradigm will influence and determine the meaning generated by the sign. John Fiske (1982: 62) argues that "the meaning of what was chosen is determined by the meaning of what was not". The choice of paradigms is based on factors such as code, connotation and style.

One could apply the "communication test", which is used to determine distinctive paradigms and define their significance. A specific paradigm in a sign is selected, and then alternatives that are appropriate to the context are considered. Every alternative must be able to occupy the same structural position as that which appears in the sign. The effects of each substitution must be considered in terms of how this might affect the sense made of the sign. This might involve a substitution in age, sex, class or ethnicity, substituting objects, etc. (Chandler: WWW).

The translator could use this test when translating an advertisement from one language and culture into another. On the linguistic level s/he would have to identify the paradigms of the natural language used in the advertisement; then s/he must consider the possibilities and alternatives in the target language which would be appropriate to the context. The translator has to make various choices regarding the choice of words, word functions, style, register, tone, etc., all of which must fit into the context of the advertisement. The final choice must be considered in terms of how the meaning of the sign in the source language was translated into the target language and with what effect.

Syntagm/paradigm discursive axes

De Saussure organised signs into codes: paradigms and syntagms. The dimensions of paradigms and syntagms are often presented as axes, where the vertical axis is paradigmatic and the horizontal axis syntagmatic. Advertising discourse can also be presented on two axes: that of text and of context.

If we apply these two dimensions to the discursive elements of text and context, it will look as follows:

We equate context with a paradigm, and text with a syntagm.

Why? Because a paradigm is a set of associated signs which are all members of some defining category, for instance the vocabulary of the source text (natural language). The sentences in this text is the syntagm of words, in other words the orderly combination of interacting signs (words), which form a meaningful whole.

Therefore, in semiotics the paradigm is chosen first (and thus the context), and thereafter the syntagm (and text).

The task of the translator would thus be to identify the paradigms (and thus the context), and then the syntagm (and the text). The translator must ask himself why one paradigm (and context) was chosen rather than another. Once this question can be answered, s/he should look at the syntagm (and text), the reason being that the syntagm is created by the choice of paradigm (e.g. vocabulary). The choice of vocabulary in a persuasive advertisement would give the translator certain information when having to translate the advertisement into another language and culture.


In this chapter an effort was made to illustrate the relationship between discourse analysis and semiotics, two seemingly divergent disciplines. By combining elements from both disciplines, the translator can approach cultural elements in persuasive advertisements in conjunction with a suitable translation theory that fulfils the requirements set by the synthesis of discourse and semiotic analysis.

Internationally the trend is towards minimizing linguistic and maximizing non-linguistic elements. There are numerous reasons for this. One very prominent reason is that advertisers are moving towards global campaigns. One campaign is used in various countries because it is cheaper than changing the advertisements into different languages.

The second reason could have social implications. The Italian clothing manufacturer Bennetton uses shock tactics to bring about social awareness in the world and consequently to market their products. They associate themselves and their product with such issues as Aids, poverty and violence. The emphasis is usually on the non-linguistic elements, such as a shocking photograph with little or no text. (See gallery for examples.)

Cigarette companies, for instance the manufacturers of Peter Stuyvesant, sell a lifestyle. Their advertisements concentrate on "beautiful" people in exotic places doing exciting things that normal mortals would not usually do. This approach assumes that all people aspire to this glamorous lifestyle and that this would transcend language and culture. As a result many of these advertisements are kept in English and not translated. (See gallery for examples.)

However, this trend is most prevalent among multinational companies. There is still a need for culture-specific advertising. According to unconfirmed statistics on the Internet, the growth of Websites in languages other than English is much larger than that of English Websites. One can surmise that there is a move towards acknowledging different cultures and languages in technology-driven media.

Cultures are unique due to their distinguishable identities that evolve over time and change constantly. The mass media play a significant role in the exchange, demise and dominance of cultures. The role of the translator is to isolate the cultural codes and find equivalents in the advertisements, but also to be sensitive to emerging cultures and sub-cultures. In the following chapter culture and its role in the translation of persuasive advertisements will be discussed.