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

Finding a Translation Theory


Advertisements present the translator with challenges and problems specific to the discourse such as its function, and cultural elements represented by signs used to convey a message. The aim is to find a translation theory that would meet the functional requirements of persuasive advertisements (i.e. to persuade and manipulate), and transfer cultural elements in the source language to the target language, and thus achieve the same effect on the target receivers as on the original receivers. Note that the same meaning is not necessarily sought, but the same effect.

Christiane Nord (1991: 92) touches on the subject of cultural difference and translation by saying that:

This is why there will never be a common translation code for all cultures. What we can achieve, though, is agreement on a general theory of translation which allows for specific variations when applied to particular cultures, taking into account the culture-specific conventions of translation and the expectations the members of a particular culture have of a translated text.

It becomes clear that language and cultures are different. Lefevere (1992: 100) recommends that 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.

Regarding the role of translations, Cluver (1988: 4) maintains that every culture reflects the categories its speakers have developed to classify phenomena in the external world. By translating a text, a certain honour is bestowed upon the target culture and receivers. The translation bridges cultures, differing view points and frames of reference by introducing new ideas and/or ideology to the target receiver. In the case of persuasive advertisements a lot more is at stake. The translator has to decide to what extent cultural transfer will take place or not.


Definition of persuasive advertisements

Bolen (1984: 9) defines advertising as "paid, nonpersonal communication through various mass media by business firms, nonprofit organizations, and individuals who are in some way identified in the message and who hope to inform or persuade members of a particular audience".

Persuasive advertisements are thus the instruments used by advertisers "who have defined their target audiences and determined the effect they hope to achieve through persuasive…ads [advertisements] in the media" (Bolen 1984: 9).

Persuasive advertisements can appear in and on any media form: television, radio, film, print (magazines, books, newspapers, newsletters), Internet, and outdoor formats (billboards, bus and taxi shelters, dust bins, placards, posters, kiosks, buildings, display towers, and private and public vehicles such as buses, trains, taxis).

Broadly speaking, advertisements have one of two functions, namely informing or persuading, although overlap can take place. An informative advertisement informs "the customer about goods, services, or ideas and then tells how to get them by means of an identified sponsor" (Bolen 1984: 6). Examples of informative advertisements include flyers and loose insertions in magazine and newspapers, which advertise new products/services or special prices on their products/services. This type of advertisement gives basic, factual information and sometimes shows a photo or drawing of the product/service.

A persuasive advertisement "should try to persuade the potential customers that they need to buy the new product" (Bolen 1984: 6). The persuasive function is not limited to manipulating the potential customer only into buying on object, but also includes the selling of services, ideas, norms and values. Examples include advertisements of beauty products (Elizabeth Arden), clothing (Nike), and alcoholic beverages (Jim Beam).

Functional requirements

The main function of a persuasive advertisement - to persuade and manipulate the receivers - is carried out by means of the message. This message communicates meaning by using signs. These signs can use verbal (linguistic signs) and/or non-verbal (non-linguistic) codes. In terms of the verbal signs Nida (1964: 120) states that "language consists of more than the meanings of the symbols and the combinations of symbols; it is essentially a code in operation, or…a code functioning for a specific purpose."

An important prerequisite for this communicative event to take place is the existence of a situation which is fixed in time and space, and which has at least two participants who are willing and able to take part for a certain purpose and by means of a text (i.e. combination of communicative signals). This situation creates the context, which "also includes the wider cultural context of the addresser and addressee, and the knowledge which they share about their total situation and their culture" (Vestergaard & Schrøder 1985: 15). Non-linguistic signs play an important role in the creation of context and determine the choice of the linguistic signs.

Linguistic signs (or language) perform different functions, among others the poetic function, which is oriented towards the code and meaning (in other words the message). According to Jakobson (in Innis 1986: 153) "the poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function".

By stating the functional requirements of persuasive advertisements, the translator has to find a theory that would accommodate the requirements and be flexible enough to deal with the transfer of cultural aspects between languages and cultures. The translation should be able to fulfil its role as a persuasive advertisement in the target language and be regarded as authentic by the receivers in the target culture, in other words "reproducing the total dynamic character of the communication" (Nida 1964: 120).

What is a message?

In terms of translation theory relevant to this discussion the message can be described as "the total meaning or content of a discourse; the concepts and feelings which the author intends the reader to understand and perceive" (Nida & Taber 1969: 205).


What is translation?

Defining translation seems simple at first glance. However, theorists and laymen alike differ on what constitutes translation. The translator of persuasive advertisements has to know what is expected of him/her in the process of dealing with an advertisement that has to be transferred to another language. Bell (1991: 20) defines the phenomenon as "the replacement of a representation of a text in one language by a representation of an equivalent text in a second language". This definition refers to an important aspect, namely equivalence, which will be discussed in the course of this chapter.

However, translation is not strictly limited to language. Some theorists such as Lambert are aware of this shift in translation theory. Lambert (1997: 60) is of the opinion that translation is an activity which involves "a kind of verbal, but never strictly verbal communication," and is "norm-bound and culture-bound".

This statement is relevant but limiting as far as non-linguistic aspects in advertisements are concerned. The definition of discourse for the purposes of this dissertation includes text and context, i.e. linguistic and non-linguistic elements.

But Lambert acknowledges that translation cannot be restricted to language alone and notes that the phenomenon of translation is communicational and cultural, in which language plays a key role.

Lambert (1997: 63) points out that:

Semioticians, literary scholars, and specialists in translation studies realize that… traditional text strategies do not necessarily reduce written texts to their language component. The semiotics of space and gesture plays a key role in translated communication as soon as the representation of a real or possible world is involved.

It becomes clear that the act of translation involves more than language, it involves non-verbal signs, and is culture-bound. The "representation in a second language" would have to adhere to certain requirements in order to be a successful translation. In the case of persuasive advertisements, the translation would have to fulfil the function of the original advertisement and have a similar effect on the receivers.

Description of equivalence

A translation theory that can deal with the above-mentioned requirements of persuasive advertisements must focus on achieving equivalence in the target language. This is not an easy task because "no two languages are identical, either in the meanings given to corresponding symbols or in the ways in which such symbols are arranged…" (Nida 1964: 156).

Halverson (1997: 207) maintains that equivalence can be defined:

As a relationship existing between two (or more) entities, and the relationship is described as one of likeness / sameness / similarity / equality in terms of any of a number of potential qualities.

The two entities are the source language and the target language between which a certain correspondence or equality has to be achieved in the translation process by means of the transfer of meaning and signs in the target language.

In the translation process some detail may be lost, but the total impact of the message might be more powerful than in the original due to the choice of signs and their meaning. Constance B. West (cited in Nida 1964: 156) states the problem as such: "Whoever takes upon himself to translate contracts a debt; to discharge it, he must pay not with the same money, but the same sum."

Types of equivalence

Different theorists use different terms for describing equivalence in translation theory. A few of these approaches will be examined in order to find a working methodology for translating persuasive advertisements.

Newmark (1981: 10) uses the term dynamic equivalence and describes it as "the principle of similar or equivalent response or effect, or of functional equivalence". Aspects, that can be equivalent include the content (in other words cognitive aspects) or the form (such as formal aspects).

Nida (1964: 165) makes a further distinction by stating that every aspect could either be formally or dynamically equivalent. One could thus speak of formal or dynamic lexical equivalence, or formal or dynamic cognitive equivalence.

In the case of formal correspondence the focus is on the message itself in form and content. The basic premise is that the message in the receptor language should match as closely as possible the different elements in the source language. This approach is often applied to the translation of poetry.

In contrast to this, there is the dynamic translation approach, which is based on the principle of equivalent effect. In this type of translation "one is not so concerned with matching the receptor-language message with the source-language message, but with the dynamic relationship, that the relationship between receptor and message should be substantially the same as that which existed between the original receptors and the message" (Nida 1964: 159).

This type of translation aims to achieve the following: naturalness of expression, and to relate the receptor to modes of behaviour relevant within the context of his own culture. Important for my purposes is that this type of translation does not insist that the target-language receptor understand the cultural patterns of the source-language context in order to comprehend the message (Nida 1964: 159).

Nida is of the opinion that all translation should be concerned with the response of the receptor. He quotes and echoes Leonard Foster’s definition of a good translation as "one which fulfils the same purpose in the new language as the original did in the language in which it was written" (cited in Nida, 1964: 162).

A successful translation must capture the sense of the original rather than merely the words and could only be regarded as a successful piece of communication if it makes sense to the receptor. In semiotic terms that would mean that signs, connotations, denotations and references in the source text would have to be translated or recreated in such a way in the target text that the response of the target language receivers would be equivalent to that of the source language receivers.

If a translation can meet the following basic requirements of (1) making sense; (2) conveying the spirit and manner of the original; (3) having a natural and easy form of expression; and (4) producing a similar response, it stands to reason that some conflict between form and content will result (Nida 1964: 164). Most often content will have priority over style.

But in the case of persuasive advertisements, this matter depends on the genre used. If an advertisement was written as a poem or song, the form would be kept, and the content translated bearing the form in mind. If a children’s rhyme such as Mary had a little lamb is used and/or adapted for use in a persuasive advertisement, and the advertisement has to be translated into Afrikaans, the translator would have to keep the form (namely the rhyme). The signs generated in the advertisement would determine how this rhyme would be translated in terms of cultural elements, their meaning and the message the advertisement communicates.

Because the meaning and form are an inseparable unit, the translator should attempt to find a compromise by giving the one aspect total dominance over the other within a given situation. The form and genre of the advertisement would dictate to the translator which aspect should dominate in the translation process.

The translator has to decide which aspects of the source text he wants to transfer equivalently to the target text. These choices will determine what type of translation will be used, as well as the procedure, namely a formal equivalent or dynamic equivalent.

Nida (1959: 13) points out that the issue of untranslatability occurs when absolute equivalence rather than relative equivalence is required. "If one is to insist that translation must involve no loss of information whatsoever, then obviously not only translating but all communication is impossible."

One could therefore say that the main object is concerned with conveying the meaning of the original text: "Translating must aim primarily at ‘reproducing the message’. To do anything else is essentially false to one’s task as a translator" (Nida & Taber 1969: 12).

It is, however, not enough just to comprehend the original message:

It would be wrong to think, however, that the response of the receptors in the second language is merely in terms of comprehension of the information, for communication is not merely informative. It must also be expressive and imperative if it is to serve the principal purposes of communication" (Nida & Taber 1969: 24).

According to Newmark (1988: 48) the communicative translation of vocative texts such as advertisements not only requires an equivalent effect, but views it as being essential to the success of the translation. He notes that "it is the criterion by which the effectiveness and therefore, the value of the translation…is to be assessed". A translation that attempts to be dynamically equivalent is based on the principle of bringing about an equivalent effect. The dynamic relationship between the receiver and the message (of the translation) must be more or less the same as the relationship between the receivers and the message of the original text.

Similar approaches

Beekman and Callow (cited in Gutt 1991: 68) developed the idiomatic approach which is similar to the dynamic equivalent approach in that it rejects form-orientated translation and emphasises that a translation should convey the meaning of the original. It also demands that the translation be faithful to the "dynamics" of the original message.

It differs from Nida’s approach in that it looks at the dynamics in terms of naturalness of language use and ease of comprehension rather than receptor response.

Beekman and Callow (cited in Gutt 1991: 68) explain their definition of a dynamic translation:

A translation which transfers the meaning and the dynamics of the original text is to be regarded as a faithful translation. The expression transfers the meaning, means that the translation conveys to the reader or hearer the information that the original conveyed to its readers or hearers… The expression, the dynamics, means that
(1) the translation makes a natural use of the linguistic structures of the RL [receptor language] and that
(2) the recipients of the translation understand the message with ease.

The prerequisite of understanding "the message with ease" is not of paramount importance in persuasive advertisements. For instance, if the original advertisement contains obscure or confusing signs for a specific reason (i.e. to confuse or disorientate the receiver), this element must be recreated in the translation.

An example is that of an Afrikaans advertisement for the Pendoring Awards. A well-known expression was used as a heading, namely "kry jou gat in rat". But the letters were presented in a jumbled form. The receiver had to figure out the disguised expression. The sign was an Afrikaans expression represented in a linguistic form. The aim of the message was to confuse the receiver, and then force her/him to discover the meaning of the signs.

Larson (cited in Gutt: 1991:68) extends the idiomatic approach by including the aspect of audience response in her definition of dynamics:

The underlying premise upon which this book is based is that the best translation is the one which a) uses the normal language forms of the receptor language, b) communicates, as much as possible, to the receptor language speakers the same meaning that was understood by the speakers of the source language, and c) maintains the dynamics of the original source language text. Maintaining the "dynamics" of the original source text means that the translation is presented in such a way that it will, hopefully evoke the same response as the source text.

The above-mentioned approaches have two basic objectives:
(1) the message or meaning conveyed to the receivers in the target language must be the same as the original message to the source language receivers; and
(2) the translated message must be equivalent to the dynamics of the original.