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


Specific cultural references and elements create problems and challenges for the translator. When two cultures differ vastly, it is very likely that many concepts and words will occur in one culture and thus in one language but not in the other. This will cause cultural gaps between the source and the target texts, which can be solved to a certain extent.

Dagut (1978: 49) echoes this notion by saying that cultural gaps are caused by ‘community-specific’ referents in one community and their absence in the other culture. Cultural objects, beliefs, customs and institutions are determined by the cultural history and traditions of the specific language community. A language community creates "designators" to symbolise referents which do not occur in the other language community. The resulting gaps are then (a) more, (b) more language specific, and (c) "more translation-resistant than the environmental type" (Dagut 1981: 52).

He goes on to say that (1978: 52-53) people have only a "superficial and rather incredulous interest" in other cultures. However, this is not wholly true. One could rather attribute this to a lack of knowledge or cultural isolation. To a lesser extent this might apply to non-translators. If not, the translator should not attempt to translate a text that is culturally loaded.

When the translator is faced with an untranslatable cultural element, s/he could use certain methods to deal with it. S/he could keep the word/term or translate the concept literally and add a footnote or explanation within the text. S/he could also leave it out but this would be to the detriment of the text and the message, unless s/he uses a substitute concept or word that would evoke a vaguely similar response. In the case of an advertisement, the advertisement would have to be recreated from the start (including visual and/or audio material) in the target language in order to create a similar message, and reaction from the receiver.


Specific values and morals are particular to a culture, and constitute the fibre of the individual. They provide her/him with a cultural identity, which in turn anchors her/him to the norms and beliefs of her/his culture.

What are the implications of this for the translator of advertisements? Advertisements are created against a cultural background. The translator then has to immerse herself/himself in the complexities of this culture, source text/culture, and be able to assess the ideologies portrayed in the advertisement. Lastly, s/he has to transfer an ideology from one culture into another culture and language. S/he has to ask herself/himself whether the effect on the target receivers would be the same as on the source receivers. Often it is not. In South Africa’s case, it could be one of two possibilities. If an ideology is transferred from English to Afrikaans or vice versa, the effect would be very similar, but when translating it into a black language, and thus culture, the effect would be vastly different.

Especially in the case of advertisements between vastly differing ideological cultures, the transfer of one ideology in a culture to another could be impossible or could lead to great difficulties. The translator has to find an alternative solution. One option could be to find analogous values, morals and ideologies within the target culture and language. In theory another option would be to make the meaning of the original ideological message in the source text accessible to the target text receivers by giving extra or explanatory information. In practice this would not work for an advertisement, the reason being that most advertisements are limited in terms of space or time. A lot must be said in a few words.

When dealing with vastly differing cultures, moral issues and values in one culture (say the source text culture) could have an adverse or no effect on the target culture receivers, and could lead to a conflict of values, which in turn will influence the message and its perception. The translator must therefore be aware of the norms and values of both cultures before setting out to translate and use semiotic means to deal with an advertisement. The translator also has to decide whether s/he will choose signs which are unique to the target culture or global signs (in other words, signs that are universally accepted to have a certain connotation and denotation). In other words, is the code broadcast or narrowcast?

As discussed in the section on the influence of American culture on world culture, one can see that existing morals, values and beliefs can be broken down in the translation process. If the translator uses signs that represent different values (which are dominant in the target culture), the intended message of the source text and its signs will be lost in the newly translated text. For example, a capitalist model as represented by the McDonald’s hamburger chain, an all-American company, opening a restaurant in China is a prime example of conflicting ideologies. A capitalist ideology is advertised in a socialist society. One culture, one set of values (America: land of the free) impeaches upon the status quo in oppressive China.


Cultural orientation and identity play important roles in the life of every individual and shape thought and views of the world. Persuasive advertisements are important creators and transmitters of values and morals in society and thus also of cultural orientation and identity. Culture can be seen as a system of meanings (made up of signs), that has been created by means of the communication process. The identity of a culture provides the background against which a translator has to work when translating a persuasive advertisement into another culture.

Language as a sign system of a culture is most commonly used to convey a message. In the case of persuasive advertisements visual and audio-visual signs are also used to generate meaning. S/he has to make a cultural assessment of the source text and culture, and then recreate the effect on the source culture in the target culture by using signs and sign systems which will enable him to get the advertiser’s original message across to the consumers (receivers).

However, a translation theory is needed which can accommodate the requirements set by a discursive-semiotic approach to identify cultural aspects in persuasive advertisements to achieve equivalence in the target language, and thus an equivalent effect on the target receivers.