A Discursive-Semiotic Approach to Translating Cultural Aspects in Persuasive Advertisements
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The Role of Culture in Persuasive Advertisements


Culture plays a central role in persuasive advertisements. Objects, ideas and concepts are created in a cultural context and conveyed by linguistic or non-linguistic signs. Brislin (1990: 9-11) defines culture as recurring patterns of behaviours. These patterns of behaviour are employed by advertisers to manipulate and persuade the receivers to simulate consumer behaviour depicted in the advertisements.

The South African society consists of various cultures and sub-cultures, bound by ethnic, religious or language similarities. In addition to these various cultures, there is also a polarisation between "white" and "black" cultures. These two so-called cultures cannot be defined as such, but broadly points to African and Western frames of reference. Within the "white" culture there is a further division, namely between Afrikaans and English speakers, who traditionally represented two different cultural groupings.

The reason for al the divisions can largely be attributed to the political dispensations in South Africa since its founding, and the resultant political parties and their ideologies. (Initially ruled by the Dutch, later by the British, then independent and ruled by a white-only government and eventually, since 1994, a democratic government.)

South Africa is populated by people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and cultures that include a vast number of indigenous people as well as people from across the globe who arrived here as a result of political and socio-economic situations. For instance, Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutchman, started the first refreshment station at the Cape, slaves were imported from inter alia India and Malaysia. British Settlers, French Huguenots, Chinese farmers and German orphans also moved to South Africa.

All the above-mentioned divisions are to a greater or lesser extent fading or changing. Traditional divisions no longer apply and new cultural groupings are forming. One of the most prominent but also neglected cultural groupings currently in South Africa is the Afrikaans-speaking community. This neglect is apparent in the advertising industry, where the trend is to advertise in English rather than in Afrikaans because it is reasoned that most Afrikaans speakers are able to speak and understand English, but not vice versa. According to a sales manager at Sarie, an Afrikaans woman’s magazine:

Die uitgangspunt is dat almal tog Engels verstaan. Maar intussen besef hulle nie watter trefkrag dit het as jy iemand in sy eie taal aanspreek nie" (Duvenhage: 1996).

Johan Roux, copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather, the largest advertising agency in South Africa gives an example of this trend by saying that "sowat 12 persent van die reklame [word] in Afrikaans gedoen" (1998: 22). In other words, only a small percentage is written in Afrikaans, although it is estimated that the largest language groupings are Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans. A total of 75% of the population can speak, read or understand Afrikaans.

This brings one to the question of the role of culture in language and the significance of culture in advertisements. McCarthy and Carter (1994: viii) state that any experience or interpretation is preceded by meanings already given within a culturally relative tradition and mediated through language.

The individual is defined by her/his culture; no single person exists in a void. The person might belong to one culture or more (for instance where the parents of a child belong to different cultures). The individual’s cultural identity anchors him/her psychologically and within society. Von Humboldt (1988: 41) states that individuals are always linked to their nation, their race and their species. This forms a connection to sociality, which is understood by means of language.

According to Askegaard (1991: 11) the importance of culture has become more and more recognised within the field of marketing during the past decade. If this is the case, advertising as a marketing tool has to pay special attention to the cultures of consumers. The assumption is that any cultural identity is expressed in signs (whether verbal or non-verbal). Thus, "these signs form a system of different ‘identity demarcations’ which can be considered cornerstones in the construction of a sociocultural identity" (Askegaard 1991: 11).

In this chapter the importance of culture for the translator of persuasive advertisements, as well as the role that culture plays in the translating of texts from one culture into another will be discussed.

PopoviÁ (1970: 78) defines the aim of translation as the transference of "certain intellectual and aesthetic values from one language to another. This transfer is not performed directly and is not without its difficulties".

When a translator has to translate a text from one culture into another a number of problems can arise. Signs in one culture might not exist in the target culture or could generate different meanings. For instance, the signs of the Voortrekker Monument and a game such as blikaspaai have an Afrikaans origin. These words were taken over by the English language users in South Africa, because the concepts and words did not exist in that language and culture. Problems such as cultural gaps can arise. The translator must be aware of the cultural factors when dealing with an advertisement because it is always created in the context of a specific culture. For instance, a dialect of Afrikaans called flaaitaal, which is spoken on the Cape Flats, refers to life in that milieu in typical Afrikaans idiom such as "Lekka lekka ywe/laat die ghantang nader skywe" (with apology to I.D. du Plessis).

An added facet to the multicultural situation in South Africa is the influence of multinational advertising. Naturally societies, such as in South Africa, change due to their dynamic character, but the role that foreign cultures, mostly American, play is increasing and marginalising the identity of indigenous cultures. The advent of mass communication and technology, such as satellite dishes beaming television programmes to the furthest corners of the world, has led to cultural boundaries becoming blurred. And so much more so in the case of multinational organisations and companies who advertise across the globe.

The main cultural culprit is the American advertising industry. American ideals are sold across the world, as is the American Dream Culture. This influence can be seen across the world and impacts negatively mostly on smaller cultures.

In the course of this chapter the following aspects will be examined:

  • the phenomenon of culture;
  • facets and elements of culture which play a role in advertisements; and
  • how these insights will lead to a translation theory suitable for transferring cultural elements.

Brislin (1990: 9-11) is of the opinion that culture consists of "ideals, values, formation and uses of categories, assumptions about life, and goal-directed activities that become unconsciously or subconsciously accepted as ‘right’ and ‘correct’ by people who identify themselves as a society".

These cultural ideals are evident and prevalent in the reality of an individual in a specific society. But when a product of this society, such as a persuasive advertisement, has to be translated into another language and culture, tension can arise. South Africa is a point in case regarding English and Afrikaans. Lefevere (1987: 4) argues that there is always a tension inside a culture between different groups, or individuals, who want to influence the evolution of that culture in the way they think best. Translations have been made with the intention of influencing the development of a culture."

Vyncke (1996: 38) confirms this opinion by saying that "culturen zijn daarbij geen statische entiteiten, maar voortdurend in ontwikkeling, vaak complex en intern tegenstrijdig. Vandaar ook dat men dikwijls spreekt van culturele ‘formaties’…".

The term culture refers to the mental and intellectual space in a human’s mind. The individual’s thoughts and inner being are formed at a very early stage within this space. The culture to which s/he is exposed would then help create her/his patterns of thought; the way s/he sees and experiences the world; the way s/he interacts with other people from the same or other cultures and the way s/he forms relationships with other people, and the way s/he discovers aspects of her/his personality and surroundings. These actions take place by using language.

This view is supported by McCarthy and Carter (1994: viii):

Language is not itself a model of reality, it is rather a sigmatic fixative of a model of reality which any individual carries in his/her mind. Since every individual is a member in a given speech community, it follows that the model of reality differs according to the cultural conditions in the individual communities.

Words and language are embedded in a culture. McCarthy and Carter (1994: viii) are of the opinion that language (as a system of signs) is a cultural vehicle in which the collective experiences of the speakers in the their surroundings is reflected and where the community’s patterns of social values crystallize.

Words are not loose entities drifting in space, but belong to a language system, which in turn belongs to a specific culture. Culture includes aspects such as rituals, habits and customs, expressions, forms of etiquette, manners of speech such as the way to address a person, or register and tone, literature, music, dance, theatre, clothing and dress code, religion and ceremonies.

However, this does not mean that language A equals culture A. In the case of South Africa, numerous black people speak Afrikaans or English, but belong to a specific cultural group such as Tswana or Zulu. The reason for this is that in the time of the National Party government, Afrikaans and English were compulsory school subjects and learners were taught in these two languages. Many people were exposed to these languages and are consequently able to understand and/or speak them.

Theorists such as Lambert and Van den Branden (1997: 2) define culture vaguely: "The term ‘culture’ refers in general to views, values, norms, expectations and conventions for behaviour that is typical for a specific society or community."

This definition is limited in the sense that is does not give an indication of the practical examples of how culture manifests itself in everyday life, which is relevant to the translator of advertisements. If the term culture is viewed from an anthropological point of view, the definition below gives the translator an idea of what to expect when dealing cultural elements in a persuasive advertisement.

The American ethnologist, Ward Goodenough (1988: 39-40) defines the concept of culture as follows:

As I see it, a society’s culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members, and do so in any role that they accept for any one of themselves. Culture, being what people have to learn as distinct from their biological heritage, must consist of the end product of learning: knowledge, in a most general, if relative, sense of the term. …we should note that culture is not a material phenomenon; it does not consist of things, people, behaviour, or emotions. It is rather an organisation of these things. It is the form of things that people have in mind, their models for perceiving, relating, and otherwise interpreting them. As such, the things people say and do, their social arrangements and events, are products or by-products of their cultures – they apply it to the task of perceiving and dealing with their circumstances.

Role of culture in society

Culture is a concept that is broad – it includes aspects of everyday life to cognitive and social structures - and complex. For this reason it is linked to the concept of socialisation. In this broad sense, culture then refers to communities which have different attitudes towards political and social issues, different cultural practices and references in their private lives, different social background, etc. (Huber 1990: 241-261).

Cultural communities may correspond with country frontiers; cultural differences do exist between countries. In the case of Belgium, the country is geographically and culturally divided into Flanders (in the North) where Flemish (a dialect of Dutch) is spoken and Wallonia (in the South) where French is spoken, and a German region (in the East).

In South Africa different cultural communities live among one another; it is therefore more difficult to group these cultural communities together. As a result, a high percentage of cross-cultural pollination takes place.

Language differences often go hand in hand with cultural differences. Language is, at a macro-level, one of the most important determining factors with regard to cultural diversity. Cultural differences exist also on a micro level, ranging from disciplinary cultures in academic communities (Huber 1990: 241-261) to working environments (company culture, professionals vs. the unemployed).

People and advertisements communicating within the same culture share a common pool of experience, frames of reference and cultural perspectives. But if an advertisement was created in one culture and is then translated into another culture and language, cultural gaps and barriers will arise. The reason for this is that people in one culture tend to interpret and judge people from other cultures and their behaviour through their own framework of cultural norms.

Communication with someone who speaks a different language, subscribes to different values and belief structures and maintains a different outlook on life, may lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication, which in turn will lead to an undesired reaction and behaviour by the receiver or consumer in the case of advertisements.

Understanding the culture of the target receivers or consumers of a persuasive advertisement is not only important for the advertiser, but also for the translator, who has to identify cultural markers in one language (source) and transfer these markers to a target language and thus receivers.