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


The translator often finds elements in a text which seem untranslatable. There are however, certain ways to measure and estimate the translatability of a text. These suggestions do not solve translation problems but provide the translator with means to approach a problematic text. Van den Broeck and Lefevere (1979: 61-66) propose the following laws of translatability to determine the degree of translatability of a text:

The larger the unit of translation, the larger the translatability would be, and vice versa.

The smaller the amount of information, the less complex the structure would be and the greater the translatability, and vice versa.

Translatability is greater when there is a degree of contact between the source language and target language.

Translatability is greater when the source language and target language are on an equal cultural level of development.

Translatability is greater between two non-related languages, if the conditions in 3 and 4 are applicable and attention is given to 'faux amis' (apparent similarities).

Translatability can be influenced by the expression possibilities of the target language. No two languages are similar. During the translation process some cultural colouring and nuances will be lost, but could also be gained due to the vocabulary and lexical diversity of the target text.

There will always be a certain degree of loss in meaning when a text is translated "...if the text describes a situation which has elements peculiar to the natural environment, institutions and culture of its language area, there is an inevitable loss of meaning, since the transference to...the translator's language can only be approximate" (Newmark 1988: 7).

In the case of advertisement translation the translator would have to be very sensitive to the losses and gains of cultural elements. S/he should assess the "weight" (connotations, denotations, familiarity) of cultural elements in the source text in order to translate them into the target text and bring about the same effect as in the source text.

One of the most difficult problems regarding advertisement translation is specific cultural items, which could include objects, historical references and customs and habits. The current trend in advertising is to use emotive situations which transcend cultural barriers in international advertising campaigns such as Nike. (Characters are portrayed in situations where they are encouraged by the slogan and sentiment "Just do it". Universal themes such as winning and losing are used, to which anyone can relate.)

This is not possible for all product advertising. Many products need to have a specific cultural angle, for instance death cover by an insurance company. In different cultures, different signs, symbols and customs will be used. For instance, in the South African context, relatives of a deceased person in a black community will give money to the family as opposed to flowers that are given for the grave in the Western community. One can thus conclude that the translating of cultural texts often involve rewriting rather than translating a text. The basic idea or message has to be retained, but the cultural context and references are newly created. In order to convey signs (linguistic and non-linguistic) successfully, the translator must use a translation theory that meets the requirements of the discourse and its function.


Semiotics is a systematic study of signs, sign systems or structures, sign processes, and sign functions. These elements are central to the process of semiosis, and together they constitute a sign. A sign is anything that can be interpreted, and must be physically and mentally perceptible. Language is only one of many systems of signs (Winner 1978: 337).

For the purpose of translating persuasive advertisements, the various signs, their meaning and significance as well as their intertextual relationships (text and context) have to be examined in order to establish their significance and their role when translated into another language and culture.

Theories of the two most prominent leaders in the field, De Saussure and Peirce, will be discussed in light of their relevance to translation theory and the transfer of cultural elements.

De Saussure was language-oriented, thereby subordinating the nonverbal to the verbal, whereas Pierce gave equal epistemological status to verbal and nonverbal signs and sign systems.

Translation as a semiotic practice

In order to establish the role of semiotics in translation, one has to look at the concepts of (1) translation, and (2) semiotics. Translation addresses aspects of communication and is concerned with the use, interpretation and manipulation of messages, that is of signs; semiotics does exactly the same (Gorlée 1994: 11).

Traditionally translation has dealt mainly with the linguistic aspects in advertisements, but now the semiotic aspects of a discourse such as advertising should be incorporated in order to make cultural transfer possible. In other words, not merely the random substitution of one image or symbol with another in the target language, but the use of symbols in the target language which will create the same effect and have the same impact and meaning on the target receivers as they had on the source receivers.

Semiotics studies the production, transmission, exchange and interpretation of messages consisting in one or more signs. The translation of persuasive advertisements must be seen as a process and a product which should be handled within the framework of a general theory of signs and not merely by means of methods that are purely language-based.

Semiotic basis for translation

Semiotics forms the basis upon which the translation of persuasive advertisements should be built. Why? All words represent signs, because they can generate meaning; they do not necessarily have meaning on their own - just like images. It can thus be said that translation is not language-based but sign-based: it deals with the transference of signs systems: verbal and nonverbal.

Gorlée (1994: 13) supports this view by stating:

[A] Point of departure of semiotic linguistics is the Saussure-based claim that all language is a system, a coherent semiotic structure, and that consequently, all text can be described and analyzed semiotically.

Brief background to semiotic approaches: De Saussure and Pierce

De Saussure claimed that all language is a system, a coherent semiotic structure. This system of signs has meaning by virtue of the signs’ relationships to one another. All texts can be analysed semiotically. According to this binary view, each sign comprises a signifier and a signified. Every sign has meaning only by virtue of its place in the system. A sentence, which is a combination of signs, is a complex signifier for a complex signified. But his view excludes the referential context and the communication situation of the language user, and meaning is thus seen as "an invariant aspect of the source text, entirely determined by the structure of a homogeneous source language system" (Lambert & Robyns: forthcoming).

For the purposes of translating persuasive advertisements the communication situation is important because it creates the context and thus meaning.

According to Lambert and Robyns (forthcoming) "the conceptual problems created by a Saussurean, dualistic view on communication place a burden on any semiotic discussion on translation". As a result, translation is presented in terms of a basic opposition of source text/language and target text/language.

Piercean semiotics offers a wider scope within which translation and semiotics can be discussed. His approach is more general and can be used to address Jakobson’s three types of translation, namely intralingual, interlingual and intersemiotic; this approach goes beyond the linguistic domain by virtue of including nonverbal signs.

Peirce’s triadic model of the sign consists of the following: (1) the representamen (the form which the sign takes), (2) the interpretant (the sense made of the sign), and (3) the object (to which the sign refers).

According to Lambert and Robyns (forthcoming):

…his interpretant, as a component in the chain of interpretations of the sign, is the necessary translation of the sign, which can be seen as its meaning, but first and foremost is a sign itself, which has to be interpreted again,… in an ongoing process of endless semiosis. Peirce defines the interpretant as a translation of the sign, but he also mentions translation as a specific instance of an interpretant.

The statement is explained as follows (Lambert & Robyns):

This means that translation should not be seen as the second component in a static dichotomy but as a step in a chain of interpretations, being itself subject to interpretation.

This would suggest that the interpretation of any sign becomes a sign in itself. The translation of such a sign is a further interpretation of the sign, and a specific interpretant must be reached at some stage, otherwise this would lead to a never-ending interpretation of signs; a "final logical interpretant" (Lambert & Robyns: forthcoming) must be decided upon.

This final logical interpretant either corresponds to a habit, a conventional cultural unit, or establishes a (partially) new one (Lambert & Robyns: forthcoming).

This model of the sign includes verbal and nonverbal signs that generate meaning, which is significant for the translator in that s/he would have to identify the meaning of each sign and translate it in such a way as to achieve equivalent meaning in the target text. The various signs in the target text would then create its own chain of interpretations, which although not identical to those of the source text, should achieve the same effect as it did in the source text.

Translation theory and semiotics

Nida’s approach to translation points towards the Piercean view of text and discourse.

For Nida (1964: 120):

Language consists of more than the meaning of the symbols and the combination of symbols; it is essentially a code in operation, or, in other words, a code functioning for a specific purpose or purposes. Thus we must analyse the transmission of a message in terms of dynamic dimension. This dimension is especially important for translation, since the production of equivalent messages is a process, not merely of matching parts of utterances, but also of reproducing the total dynamic character of the communication. Without both elements the results can scarcely be regarded, in any realistic sense, as equivalent.

Nida’s "dynamic dimension" in which "equivalent messages" are produced points to Pierce’s continuous process through which a sign stands in a certain dynamic relation to the signs preceding it and the signs following it, thus forming a system of signs (Gorlée 1994: 14).

Translation of signs

Jakobson (cited in Toury 1980:14) states that the meaning of any linguistic sign is its translation into an alternative sign "in which it is more fully developed".

A verbal sign can be interpreted in three different ways: it can be translated into other signs of the same language, into another language, or into another, verbal system of symbols.

These three kinds of translation are also called:

Intralingual translation or rewording. This is an interpretation of the verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language. One could say similes are used.

Interlingual translation or translation proper. This is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of another language.

Intersemiotic translation or transmutation. This is an interpretation of the verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal systems.

In the case of translating persuasive advertisements, interlingual and intersemiotic translation methods will be used. This means that the advertisement will have to be translated into another language and culture by means of language, which creates its own signs and nonverbal signs in the target text.

The French theorist, Georges Mounin, perceives translation as a series of operations of which the starting point and the end product are significations and the function within a given culture (cited in Bassnett-McGuire 1980: 14).

There is usually no full equivalence between code-units in the case of interlingual translation, but the message may serve as adequate interpretations of alien code-units or messages (Jakobson cited in Toury 1980: 14). What happens is that during the translation process the message in the source language is substituted for an entire message in the target language, and not only code-units. The translator acts as the go-between between the two languages and has to create an equivalent effect in the target language.

The translator has to identify the codes at work in the source language to translate the text and context of the source text into the target text, in order to create an equivalent effect. A combination of interlingual and intersemiotic translation will enable the translator to create equivalence between the source and target languages.


Translation theory has moved away from a purely linguistic perspective towards the methodology of translation towards incorporating non-linguistic disciplines such as semiotics to supplement existing theory. An attempt has been made to show what the demands of translating cultural elements in persuasive advertisements, and how to approach and deal with these elements from a semiotic point of view in order to include linguistic and non-linguistic signs and their underlying relationships. Signs, which generate certain meanings in the source language and culture, are used in persuasive advertisements to achieve a certain effect or goal; the relationships between the different signs are unique and cannot be identically reproduced during the translation process.

However, the translator, by means of creating new signs and relationships between verbal and non-verbal elements, can create an effect or response that is similar to that of the source text.