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


Every culture has its own set of sign systems. As shown and discussed, South Africa is a mixture of many cultures which have not yet gelled into a unanimous shared South African culture; it is fragmented. Also, there are conflicting interpretations of what constitutes South African nationhood. The closest to this is the (now coined) "rainbow nation" idea.

Concretised manifestations of the ideologies prevailing within a society (within a broader culture) include national symbols. Due to South Africa’s chequered political history, many such symbols exist and new ones are created within the new democratic regime.

In order to understand the relationship between national symbols and ideology in South Africa, one must look at the different shifts of power in the history of the country up to the democratic elections in April 1994.

  1. Early monuments erected in the Cape Colony reflected the achievements of British colonial control over the region.
  2. Between 1880 and 1908 the emphasis was on the expansion of British imperial control. Significant events include battles such as Majuba and the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902.
  3. Symbols encoded in South Africa’s monuments between the two World Wars reflect a jingoistic elevation of British imperial achievement.
  4. The rise and entrenchment of Afrikaner Nationalism reveals a vigour of purpose

(Tomaselli, Shepperson & Mpofu 1993-1995).

In 1994 April the first democratic elections took place, with every person over the age of 18 being allowed to vote for a new government.

The Afrikaner Nationalists who took over power in 1948 left the monuments of the previous era intact. (This action contrasts with what the Government of National Unity did after the 1994 elections.) The reason for this could be that the new government wanted to create unity among the white population of the country, despite the differences in cultural backgrounds. In semiotic terms this would reflect the prospective mirror where new signs and symbols would be anticipated, and also the interactive mirror where emphasis is placed on the collective identity that needed to be created.

The policy of separateness as implemented by the Nationalist Party contributed to the problematic symbolic status of nation and nationalism. This was compounded by the implementation of homelands, where people from the same ethnic group were given their own homeland. Other factors that played a part in the fragmentation of the nationalism included memories of British imperialism, Afrikaner self-determination, ethnic nationalism, and African nationalism.

Tomaselli et al. (1993-1995) suggest that many differing aspirations have to be re-deployed into a common, wider vision of the future. However, the answer is not that simplistic. There are not enough national symbols that could unify the nation all inclusively, but the divide between different cultural and ethnic groups is too wide to bridge within one or two generations. A possible solution to the problem could be the creation of common signs and symbols, matters of national relevance and importance, and broad humanistic issues that would address the whole nation, including all the different cultures in the country. However, in terms of signs used in advertisements, it would be best to address the different cultural groups in their own idiom, and produce the best results.

Significant nature of national symbols

In the emerging New South Africa, national symbols are received in an emotional way. Old ones are being discarded (currently there is a renewed debate about the old name "Springbok" for the national rugby team).

When a new symbol is created as an intended national symbol, the creators thereof decide upon a meaning and interpretation that these symbols must generate. However, this interpretation is for the benefit of generations to come. The meaning must be preserved for the future in order to achieve its original intention of unifying a nation or whatever other reason. Tomaselli et al. (1993-1995) are of the opinion that "for a future generation, the monuments will be a focus around which children will be expected to develop specific emotional attachments (emotional interpretants) in respect of their identity beyond the family".

For those interested in semiotics, South Africa under the new dispensation offers many challenges and opportunities to establish new signs and national symbols. But for the translator or cultural mediator this could prove a nightmare. There are many national symbols, which often represent opposing political views and expectations. The challenge is to find common symbols for "new" nations, a process that is slowly taking place. The area in which it is most publicly seen is the sport scene. Sport, being a national obsession, has started to transform its exclusive image to that of a cultural barrier breaker. The national rugby team is called Amabokoboko, a new African name. The national soccer team is called Bafana Bafana, also a new name.

A further example is the renaming of public buildings and amenities, dams, roads and airports. D.F. Malan Airport has been changed to Cape Town International, Jan Smuts to Johannesburg International, and the H.F. Verwoerd Dam to Gariep Dam. These names all refer to National Party politicians under the old regime and have been replaced by indigenous plant or place names, or the names of politicians who participated in the struggle for democracy.

It is clear that one political party and ideology has been replaced by another and, as a result, the names of places too. In the new, democratic dispensation the shackles of the past have been cast off and more and more people in the white community are confronting their heritage and cultural values. Symbols of the past as embodied in objects, such as the old South African flag and paintings depicting historical events like Blood River, are displayed and seen as collectors’ items reflecting the past but not the future; these do not hold their original significance and meaning for the new, emerging generation. As a matter of fact, many of these objects and symbols such as Tretchikof paintings and three ducks in a row, have curiosity value but no cultural identity value, and are regarded as "kitsch", thus in a condescending way.


New cultures and changes within existing cultures influence language by creating new words, new concepts and new ways of expression.

When different cultures come into contact with each other, the creation and migration of words (lexical items) between languages and cultures take place. Also, when a concept is lacking within one culture and is then taken over from another culture, the word is absorbed into that culture. The reality of the absorption is that the language that is increasingly being absorbed by other cultures and languages is English. The Dutch call it "de Engelse ziekte" (the English disease), for it is eating like a cancer into the fibre of their language and culture (Anon., 1997:36). The American culture is one of the main culprits, infiltrating the whole world, especially Europe, Eastern countries and Third World continents such as South America and Africa.

New cultures develop within existing cultures, for instance the yuppie culture, which referred to a specific socio-economic group characterised by certain material possessions. The word yuppie is an acronym for "young and upwardly mobile professionals" and originated in the eighties during a period of economic prosperity. This phenomenon appeared in various cultures across the world.

Changes within a culture continually take place. When new technology develops in a culture, new words and concepts also develop, which are added to the vocabulary and language system. This technology with its vocabulary will inevitably migrate to other cultures and languages. The "other" cultures and languages will be expanded and influenced by the new additions. These new concepts and vocabulary will be absorbed in their original form or translated.

New technological vocabularies contribute largely to the influencing of cultures, outside the language of origin of these words. For instance a word such as cyberspace in English translated into Afrikaans becomes kuberruimte.

When cultures differing vastly from one another come into contact, an exchange of concepts takes place. This is usually due to the fact that there is a lack of a concept within culture one, but culture two has this concept and term within its language system. Words borrowed from other languages and cultures and accepted in English and Afrikaans include perestroika (from Russian), geisha (Japanese), and Weltanschauung (German). These words have migrated from their languages into other cultures and languages, taking the concepts and ideas that they express with them into the new culture.

We can thus say that words are agents of cultural transfer. This phenomenon is ever increasing, especially in the computer field. As more and more concepts, programs and technology come into being, more terminology is needed. These terms usually originate in the USA (American-English), the centre of the world’s computer industry. The speakers and users of many non-English languages find it difficult to create these terms in their own languages, or are lazy to do so, or find it confusing to use their own terms instead of the widely used and accepted English terms. In Flanders, words such as computer and e-mail are used instead of Dutch words. Afrikaans, on the other hand, has created its own words or translated the English words into rekenaar and e-pos, for example.

Although there is a growing trend to mix English and Afrikaans in radio advertisements, creators of print and television advertising use the Afrikaans version of a computer term or create their own term or concept. (This is mainly to save money. By having the radio advertisement in Afrikaans and English, the advertisers reason that they would get the attention of the majority of listeners. This is a false presumption because the advertisement sounds unprofessional and shoddy and confuses the audience.)

Business people from different cultures conduct business differently, communicate differently and perceive and construct their realities in different ways. The translator of advertisements has to be very careful when translating simple words and concepts because their apparent similarity might belie different visions of reality.

For instance, the concept of honour in Muslim religion and culture could involve killing someone to protect the family’s honour, whereas other cultures might not view honour in the same light.

Influence of Multinational Advertising

The future of existing cultural symbols and signs in South Africa is being threatened by the infiltration of foreign ideology and ideas, reflected in the signs used in multinational advertisements.

The world is becoming a global village where anyone can meet everyone or anyone in cyberspace. People from different cultures across the globe have access to information and make contact with people in the furthest corners of the world. This is made possible by the ever-developing wonders of technology such as high-speed computers that are all connected to the Internet and the world-wide web (WWW). Satellite technology is another point in case, beaming information around the world and accessed by millions each day. South Africans are no exception in this regard.

The world is getting connected, but this has serious implications for the individual and his cultural identity. The world market is becoming homogeneous and thus cultural diversity is gradually disappearing.

The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, multinational corporations use mass media to convey their message and advertising. Secondly, multinational companies use advertising and marketing strategies that infiltrate overseas markets (Kim 1995: WWW). In other words, the nature of the advertising is such that it uses universal concepts and ideas to convey its message such as love, needs, etc. rather than culturally specific references. This means that advertising campaigns are standardized and transplanted from country to country instead of creating specific campaigns for specific cultures.

Multinational advertising (one could say, advertising with its roots in American culture) is influencing the spirit of other cultures by replacing models, customs and products with the universal or global ideal.

Multinational advertising as a vehicle for multinational companies constitutes social and cultural shapers and organisers of cultures. It presents all cultures in a similar form, by introducing the same products to everyone in the world in the same context and manner -- showing very little or no cultural adaptation. Thus the culture of a nation is weakened by the foreign culture by offering foreign values and traditions instead of reinforcing the culture’s own. A point in case is that of cigarette companies such as Marlboro that portray a typically American icon, namely that of a cowboy living in rugged country and smoking this brand of cigarettes. The underlying message is that tough, rugged action men such as cowboys in the American Midwest smoke these cigarettes, nothing else will do to satisfy their needs after a hard day’s work. In cultures other than the American, these signs project a certain lifestyle that seems to be desirable to people who identify with the role model depicted in the advertisement.

In the case of South Africa, which is a combination of First and Third World conditions, as well as being a developing country, tension arises between multinational global advertising and local advertising. Multinational advertising wields great power over markets due to its vast financial resources. In a developing country such as South Africa, multinational companies realise that there are vast markets to develop. By having little or no competition from local manufacturers or companies, the multinational companies can move in with their advertising campaigns. So consuming culture is standardized by means of a standardization strategy (Kim 1995: WWW). Not only are consumer and product culture cultivated, but also consumers' lifestyles and cultural behaviour.

According to Kim (1995) multinational advertising uses the technique, symbol and social relations that have developed around the gains and needs of its own country rather than local needs or environment. Western culture has thus been spreading disproportionately.

Coca-Cola is a prime example of a multinational product. This company has been accused of trying to "recolonize" the world with a Coca-Cola type western culture (Kim 1995: WWW). The advertising is produced by an advanced western multinational advertising agency, and for this reason it holds the cultural and social message of the producing country. The objective of the company is to sell a lifestyle, a way of living and the good life. It personifies the American Dream as represented by a can of cold drink.

However, the company is increasingly moving towards embracing diverse cultures within its marketing and advertising campaigns. Examples of this include billboards seen in Belgium in French and Dutch, and jingles in Afrikaans in South Africa.

According to Kim (1995) multinational advertising is blamed for portraying American values as universally desirable, raising aspirations excessively, and persuading rather than informing. The own culture gets less emphasis and is thus overshadowed by foreign notions and ideas.