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


It has been established that a discourse such as persuasive advertisements must be seen as communicative function taking place in a given situation which forms part of a broader sociocultural background.

The translation no longer entails "linguistic substitution or mere code-switching but a ‘cultural transfer’ (Snell-Hornby 1989: 319). The text (linguistic elements) is "der verbalisierte Teil einer Soziokultur" (Hönig & Kussmaul 1982: 58).

The role of the translator is to facilitate the transfer of message, meaning and cultural elements from one language into another and create an equivalent response from the receivers. The message in the source language is embedded a cultural context and has to be transferred to the target language (Nida 1964: 13).

The dynamic equivalent translation approach provides the translator with a theory which can deal with the cultural challenges and problems inherent in persuasive advertisements.

Cultural dynamic equivalence

Nida (1964: 166) says that defining a dynamic equivalent translation is to describe it as " the closest natural equivalent to the source-language message".

This definition contains three essential terms, namely (1) equivalent, which refers to the source-language message; (2) natural, which refers to the receptor language; and (3) closest, which "binds the two orientations together on the basis of the highest degree of approximation". Natural refers to three areas of the communication process: a natural rendering should fit the whole receptor language and culture, the context of the specific message, and the receptor-language audience. Therefore the translation should bear no obvious trace of a foreign origin. A natural translation would have to deal with two main areas of adaptation, that is grammar and lexicon. The grammatical adaptation takes place more readily since one is obliged to make adjustments such as shifting word order or using nouns instead of verbs in the receptor language. The lexical structure of the source message is less easily adjusted to the semantic requirements of the receptor language because there are no strict grammatical rules but a variety of options.

The translator has to take three lexical levels into account: (1) terms for which there are many equivalents, such as man, tree and flower; (2) terms which identify culturally different objects but with similar functions, such as house as opposed to shack; (3) terms which identify cultural specialities such as knopkierie, igloo and kleinhuisie.

Most of the time the first set does not create problems; the second set can give rise to confusion so that the translator has to use another term which reflects the form of the referent or a term which identifies the equivalent function. The third set provides the translator with truly cultural words, which bring with them foreign associations.

Nida (1964: 167) says that "no translation that attempts to bridge a wide cultural gap can hope to eliminate all traces of the foreign setting". He goes on to say that "it is inevitable that when source and receptor languages represent very different cultures there should be many basic themes and accounts which cannot be ‘naturalized’ by the process of translating".

Naturalness of expression in the receptor is, according to Nida (1964: 168), basically a problem of co-suitability. This problem occurs at several levels:

  1. word classes (where a noun is used instead of the verb);
  2. grammatical categories (in some languages predicate-nominatives must agree in number with the subject);
  3. semantic classes;
  4. discourse types (some languages require direct quotation and other indirect); and
  5. cultural context (some practices are strange to other cultures).

A natural translation must also be in accordance with the context of the specific message, which could include grammatical and lexical elements but also detailed matters such as intonation and sentence rhythm. For instance, a translator should be sensitive to the register and style of the source text and thus be aware not to use slang, vulgarities or colloquialisms when not asked for in the text. The translator should, however, not turn a straightforward piece of text into a technical work that is longwinded and difficult to understand.

The translator should be aware of anachronisms, which include archaisms and contemporary words when translating a text. When translating discourse that refers to a historical period, the translator should use vocabulary relevant to the period; by the same token s/he should not use outdated words in a contemporary piece of discourse. Nida (1964: 168) argues that "the appropriateness of the message within the context is not merely a matter of the referential content of the words. The total impression of a message consists not merely in the objects, events, abstractions and relationships symbolized by the words, but also in the stylistic selection and arrangement of such symbols." In other words, flowery English would not be as successful in Afrikaans, which is a more clinical, straightforward language with fewer possibilities in terms of vocabulary. The Afrikaans word corpus is much smaller than English due to the fact that it has existed for a much shorter period (for about the past fifty years). It is important in a dynamic equivalent translation that the translator reflects the point of view of the author such as sarcasm, irony or whimsical features.

Another important element in the naturalness of the dynamic equivalent translation is the extent to which the message fits the receptor-language audience (Nida 1964: 170).

According to Nida (1964: 170) the appropriateness must be judged on the basis of the level of experience and capacity for decoding of the receivers/receptors. But in the advertising discourse and the translation thereof this is not always possible. At the conception of the advertising campaign the strategic planners would have identified the target market. But this market is not homogeneous and the translator would not be able to judge their decoding capabilities as such. The subject matter, however, would give some indication. For instance, a print advertisement for cigars would assume a certain type of consumer, that is to say not the broad consumer market but a niche market. An advertisement for a chocolate bar would cover a much wider market: anyone ranging from a child to the CEO of an international company.

Cognitive equivalence and culture

Cognitive equivalence refers to the content, the message of the text, and involves aspects such as lexical, semantic, semiotic, paradigmatic and pragmatic equivalence. Nida (1976: 48-49) states that the message in a translation is still the dominant element in the discussion about translation, even to the extent that equivalence of form is ignored. But Nida does add that content and form cannot really ever be separated. When dealing with the content of a text (read advertisement) the translator must clearly distinguish between the discourse and the spatial-temporal background of the text. S/he has to decide whether s/he wants to use the less understandable cultural background of the source text or the more understandable but anachronistic cultural background of the target text.

Nida (1976: 50) proposes that the purpose of the translation will determine which approach towards the cultural background has to be used: when the translation has to elicit a specific response from the receivers, the translator will have to adapt and modernise the cultural background. If the purpose is to communicate the date of a specific event, the cultural background has to be given in a faithful manner.

Translating the message

Certain sign relations are built or established within the source text/language, which creates a certain message, connotations and denotation. These relations have to be recreated in another language and culture. But it is not possible to recreate or reconstruct the exact relationships: a new set of relationships will have to be established and sign interpretations have to be established: but the message and its aim in the source language have to be reached in the target text.

In terms of translation equivalence, relationships have to be taken into account which are determined by the linguistic and cultural distance between codes which transfer messages.

In some cases languages and cultures are closely related, such as Arabic and Hebrew. In other cases the languages are not related but there are similarities between the cultures, such German and Hungarian. In the third case, the languages and the cultures can differ totally, for example English and Zulu (Nida 1964: 160).

Where the linguistic and cultural distances between source and receptor codes are minimal, one expects to have very few serious problems, but this is not so. In the case of Afrikaans and English, which once were the only two official languages in South Africa, a translator can be badly deceived by the superficial similarities. False friends, for instance, are a serious problem, such as the English word "eventually" which could be translated as "eventueel" which does not mean the same, but rather "possibly" ("moontlik") in Afrikaans. When the cultures are related but the languages differ quite substantially, the translator must make many formal shifts in the translation. According to Nida (1964: 160) "cultural similarities in such instances usually provide a series of parallelisms of content that make the translation proportionally much less difficult than when both languages and cultures are disparate".

Nida (1964: 156) is of the opinion that no two languages are identical, "either in the meanings given to corresponding symbols or in the ways which such symbols are arranged in phrases and sentences". For this reason there can be no absolute correspondence between languages whatsoever.

However, if the languages are closely related, such as Afrikaans and Flemish, where there is a high percentage of correspondence between vocabulary, the equivalence could be higher than between Afrikaans and a black language such as Zulu. There can be no fully identical translations, especially in the case of advertisements where the visual material also generates meaning, and connotations that could and probably would be interpreted differently by different cultures, although the words might have a high degree of linguistic and semantic equivalence. Nida (1964: 156) says that the process of translation involves a certain degree of interpretation by the translator. This is especially true in the case of translating advertising discourse, since the translator has to make certain decisions concerning the choice of idiom and symbol which s/he deems the most appropriate for the discourse. The translator has to interpret the message in the source language and find an equivalent in the target language that will create a similar effect on the receivers in the target language as it did on the source language receivers.