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


The USA is a super-power not only in monetary terms, but also as a purveyor of a new culture, a world culture, based on the American Dream. This influence is evident in the advertisements for various products, ranging from clothing (Nike) to food (MacDonalds) to entertainment (films and music videos), where international campaigns are based on American attitudes and lifestyles. The values and morals of the world’s leader in so many fields are also infiltrating the world via technological means to convey a world culture based on their own and spreading it to the detriment of the cultural identities of many smaller cultures.

What is the American Dream and how does it manifest itself in advertising? According to Jack Soloman (WWW) the American Dream has two faces: the one communally egalitarian and the other one competitively elitist. The American myth of equality celebrates the virtues of wholesome living, but it also lures one to believe that one has to achieve and rise above the crowd and bask in the glory alone. In order words, it breeds desire.

This desire finds a vehicle in their advertising. This contradictory nature of the American Dream is used by advertisers to manipulate consumers into buying items. As Soloman (WWW) so succinctly puts it "advertising campaigns are exercises in behaviour modification". In other words, morals and values are imposed upon the unsuspecting consumer and woven into his life as if gospel.

These persuasive or manipulating advertisements are used to unearth and exploit the discontent fostered by the American Dream, constant desire for social success and material rewards (Soloman: WWW). This is a culture that runs on materialism and the desire to own, to have, even if it is unnecessary or useless. It is a cultural identity built on image, not substance.

In other words, signs or symbols of wealth and power and social mobility or status are used in advertising to establish morals and values. Ordinary objects become signs that will bestow superiority upon them.

Soloman (WWW) is of the opinion that American companies manufacture status symbols because American consumers want them. It could, however, be argued that this desire was created by advertisers to sell their products. This desire for status symbols has spilled over to Europe, the East and Third World countries, where everything American is seen as desirable, irrespective of the true value and use. The demand for status symbols is particularly strong in developing nations, where the individual wants to rise above her/his lowly beginnings and wants to be regarded as a success in order to gain social status.

Status symbols are signs of the possessor’s place in the social hierarchy. This is particularly evident in South Africa where designer labels abound in poor communities, especially black communities. Designer clothing, whether fake or real, distinguishes people from others, they give social status which would be denied otherwise. But what is a status symbol? It could be something that is very expensive or difficult to obtain. The object does not matter that much, but its sign value, which generates a specific meaning within the culture, does indeed.

In other words, the signal it sends should say that it is a sign of power. In South Africa these signs of power are often displayed by means of designer clothing, expensive cars and homes.


What does the translator have to take into account?

It has been established thus far that cultural elements play an important role in advertisements. Gorlée (1994: 189) states that the translator as communicator has a dual role. S/he embodies "both the addressee of the original message, and the addresser of the translated message; both interpreter and utterer; both the patient interpreting the primary sign, and the agent uttering the translated meta-sign" (Gorlée 1994: 189).

The role of the translator in the translation process is to bridge the differences between cultures and languages, which are symbols of that specific cultural identity. So what does the translator have to bear in mind when dealing with advertisements that have to be translated between different cultures?

According to Lefevere (1992: 100) languages are different, but translators should be taught the relativity of translation poetics as well as strategies that could bridge the translator’s view of the source image, projecting an image that the target audience understands in a similar manner. In other words, translators should strive towards a method where dynamic equivalence takes place in the translation process, especially when dealing with persuasive advertisements where the message is the most important function. The translator must assess which elements constituted the message in the source language, and then ask herself/himself the following questions before embarking on the translation process. What cultural signs were used to convey the message? How effective were they? Why were they used and not similar signs? What underlying ideology do these signs represent?

Once these questions have been answered, the translator can embark on her/his journey to bridge the cultural signs and their meaning by translating them into the target language and culture. The translator is also an instrument in the process of translating between cultures and not the be all and end all; the translator is the mediator who provides the signs (in the target language and culture) that are used by the receivers to generate meaning. In other words, the translator is an element in the process of semiosis.

The translator must be familiar with the elements active within the identity of the culture of the target language sign system into which he translates. Even more, the translator must familiarise herself/himself with the changes taking place within the culture and the new sign systems developing or old ones disappearing. The translator stands within one culture (her/his own) but must have the ability to ascertain what the elements of the cultural identity of the source language (and thus culture) are if s/he aims to achieve dynamic equivalence at all in the target language (and culture).

Translating in a multicultural society

New cultures develop and existing ones change all the time. In South Africa this phenomenon is continuously taking place. The translator, dealing with an advertisement, must be aware of the changes taking place in the culture of the source and target languages because s/he has to be able to create dynamically equivalent signs in the target text.

Mary Snell-Hornby (1988: 42) maintains that "if language is an integral part of culture, the translator needs not only proficiency in two languages, he must also be at home in two cultures". This "at homes"-ness would refer to a thorough knowledge of the culture and its nuances.

Nida (1982: 9) differs from Snell-Hornby by maintaining that certain aspects of culture are universal and are not culturally bound.

…human experience is so much alike throughout the world. Everyone eats, sleeps, works, is related to families, experiences, love, hate, jealousy, is capable of altruism, loyalty, and friendship, and employs many facial gestures which are almost universal. In fact, what people of various cultures have in common is far greater than what separates them from one another.

Nida’s assumption that people are so alike that their cultural differences would not pose many problems for the translator can be proven wrong. The fact that people are alike in the sense that they all eat, sleep and drink represents human traits as opposed to the behaviour of wild or domestic animals. But within this similarity of human beings, cultures distinguish human beings from one another.

New cultures develop and existing cultures change. Improved technology has increased the awareness of foreign cultures and, in turn, brought along its own cultures such as cyber culture and digital culture. People across the world have become more aware of little known and dying cultures. The knowledge of cultures is especially relevant for translators, because they have to know their own culture (source language culture) and related sub-cultures very well, as well as other influencing cultures before they can attempt to translate advertising texts.

Translating national symbols

Translating a national symbol in South Africa can be a tricky and sensitive matter. Due to the political history of the country, national symbols evoke strong emotions from different members of different cultures. Many national symbols are associated with a specific political era and thus seen as signs expressing an ideology.

The translator has to ask herself/himself what the aim/objective of the sender of the advertisement was when it was created. A meaning and message are embedded in a specific cultural or national sign, which has to achieve a certain reaction or action from the receivers.

The translator has to establish whether the national symbol could be transferred culturally, in other words to an equivalent symbol in the target language, or whether the symbol has to be retained in the target language with only a verbal translation. In the case of a translation in South Africa between English and Afrikaans, most national symbols could be retained. But in the case of translating a text between English/Afrikaans and any black language (and thus the culture) the translator would have to be very careful, because of the associated meanings of the black/white polarisation towards symbols of the old regime (which consisted only of whites). Even within the different black ethnic groupings, the translator would have to do research into the customs of a specific culture so as not to make misjudgements.

The translator has to assess whether it is possible to transfer cultural symbols to another culture or language. In the case of countries with more than one national language, this could be possible, for instance in South Africa and Belgium. However, the translator must be sure that these linguistically transferred symbols are accepted and used by the broad spectrum of users and the media in that country as a national symbol and not just by a few.

When faced with a text that requires the translation of cultural aspects, the translator has to orientate herself/himself in terms of the target culture.

Victor Khairullin (1992: 155) has the following to say about the translator’s approach towards cultural translation:

The process of translation is a creative kind of activity, based on both linguistic and culturological rules. Every language is unique. The language pattern of the world is accounted for by culturological peculiarities, i.e. peculiarities of ethnic, [and] social, norms and economic achievements of a nation in a certain stage of development. Culturology in a language pattern is essential, so some specialists tend to believe that in effect one does not translate language, one translates cultures. The idea of the necessity of the culturology translation parameter is very strong in the above quotation, but still its presence is beyond doubt.

In order to translate an advertisement, the translator has to isolate the different cultural references, whether explicitly or implicitly stated. Only after having identified them and the signs used to represent them, can the translator attempt to find dynamic equivalents in the target culture.

For instance, when faced with translating a Marlboro cigarette advertisement into Afrikaans, the translator has to find a corresponding cultural setting/milieu to that depicted in the American advertisement, as well as the meaning created by the signs used in that advertisement. The milieu in the original advertisement is that of the American Midwest, rough and demanding environment. In the South African milieu, the Great Marico (reminiscent of Herman Charles Bosman descriptions) area would evoke associations similar to the American Midwest, the reason for this being that the landscape, the people and the social setting generate similar meanings and signs in the Afrikaner culture to those it would for the Americans familiar with conditions in the Midwest.

Specific cultural references

One can approach specific cultural items by asking what cultural references are. The simple answer would be that everything and everyone can be a cultural reference within a translation situation, in other words elements of ideal and material culture as well as natural facts and objects.

Jain (1988: 12) claims that it is not entirely possible to identify the cultural content, but that it is interwoven in the texture of the language. But it is possible to identify the symbols or markers that are part of the culture.

One way to identify specific cultural items is to relate them to those items belonging to the most arbitrary part of each linguistic system such as its local institutions, historical places and figures, street names, persons, periodicals, works of art, etc.

Aixelá (1992/1993: 113), on the other hand, maintains that a specific cultural item does not exist in itself, "but has to be viewed as the result of a conflict established by any reference in a ST which, when transferred to another language (TL), poses a translation problem due to the non-existence or to the different value (in terms of ideology, frequency, usage, etc.) of the item in the TL culture."

An example of this is the custom in black cultures where lobola is paid. When a man wants to marry a girl, he has to pay lobola to her father. This entails a fixed number of cows and some alcoholic drink. This concept might appear in the target culture, but could be called something else or share characteristics of the custom.

A word or concept acquires a cultural value during the translation process when the translator has to recreate or rewrite the ST into the TT. If a generic word in one culture and language such as lamb (with the connotation of innocence) is translated into a culture where it is not common and does not have the same connotations as in the ST, the translator will have to translate the word with an equivalent word that has the same cultural and intertextual load. In other words, in one culture a word or item will be generic and not culturally loaded, but in another language the opposite could be true. The translator has to have a sound knowledge of both cultures and language systems to prevent him from using archaisms, anachronistic or unfamiliar words.

If the source culture differs vastly from the target culture, it becomes more difficult to recreate a linguistic expression totally in the target language. This statement is supported by Mary Snell-Hornby (1988: 41) who says that the "extent to which a text is translatable varies with the degree to which it is embedded in its own specific culture, also with the distance that separates the cultural background of source text and target audience in terms of time and place".

The reason for this is that the structure of an expression in the source text creates a meaning that is contextualised; this meaning will then have to be translated and re-contextualised in the target language to ensure that a similar response is elicited from the receivers in the case of advertisements.

In an advertisement connotations and denotations are created by means of the text (words) and the visual material which places the advertisement within a certain cultural setting. Context is thus created, as is a frame of reference that the receiver uses to create the meaning of the message. The translator has to recreate connotations, denotations and meaning so that the TL receiver can create her/his own frame of reference within a re-organised context pertaining to her/his own culture.

When translating from one language into another, the translator acts as a facilitator between two languages and, to a lesser or greater extent, two cultures. This act involves the transcending of two sets of norms as personified by the source language and the target language. The act of translating involves interpreting the source language, and rewriting and recreating the text in the target language. One could say that a translation is a balancing act where the translator has to balance two cultures and languages in the translation process. Inevitably, this situation is unbalanced. Subtle nuances and references get lost in the translation process, but by the same token the target language receivers could gain more from a dynamically equivalent translation than from a literal translation

As Gideon Toury says, limiting himself to the field of literary translation (1980: 52-3):

Literary translation is a product of a complex procedure, inevitably involving two languages and two literary traditions, that is, two sets of norm-systems. Thus, the ‘value’ behind the norms of literary translation may be described as consisting of two major elements (which may easily be subdivided further): being a worthwhile literary work (text) in TL (that is, occupying the appropriate position, or filling in the appropriate ‘slot’, in the target literary polysystem); being a translation (that is, constituting a representation in TL of another pre-existing text in some other language, SL, belonging to another literary polysystem, that of the source, and occupying a certain position within it). Thus, this ‘value’ contains requirements deriving from two essentially different sources often incompatible, if not diametrically opposed to one another. (In this connection, one might recall the semi-popular formulation of this opposition as being between ‘reading as an original’ and ‘reading as the original’.)

The above statement could be applied to the translation of persuasive advertisements.

The demand of double loyalty manifests itself on four levels:

Linguistic diversity. Linguistic codes are arbitrary systems; their function and the meaning of each sign depend on their differential relations with other signs, and not on a supposed objective relation of equivalence with the continuum called reality. The idea of arbitrariness precludes the possibility that two linguistic codes would place every sign on the same point of their respective scales. The importance attributed by the different societies to the incompatibility for language pairs is an important guideline for the translator to understand society’s attitude towards translation and translatability (Aixelá 1992/3:110).

Cultural diversity. Every linguistic community has its own set of customs, values and habits; these communities convey and shape these by means of their linguistic code and conventions.

Historical diversity. The horizontal or geographic distinction is linked with another vertical or historical nature which will always occur in translation, due to the fact that the ST precedes the TT. Modes of communication and value systems are continuously in a state of flux and evolution. Therefore, the intertextual value and/or connotations of the lexical items and the communicative strategies change constantly.

Interpretative diversity. The bilingual and bicultural competence of the translator would play a role in the interpretation of the ST and the consequent translation into the TT.

As Mary Snell-Hornby (1988:1-2) puts it:

The text cannot be considered as a static specimen of language (an idea still dominant in practical translation classes), but essentially as the verbalized expression of an author’s intention as understood by the translator as reader, who then recreates this whole for another readership in another culture. This dynamic process explains why… the perfect translation does not exist.