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


Information overload abounds, as do advertisements. People, who are the receivers of the information forced upon them from all quarters, are the reason for the existence of advertisements that persuade them to take certain actions. The purpose of this dissertation has been to show that the translator of persuasive advertisements needs instruments to attract the attention of the receivers before anything or any other advertisement does. In other words, the attention-grabbing advertisement must have or do something that differentiates it from other discourses; it must arrest the eye of the receiver.

This objective can be achieved in various ways, either by shocking the receiver or being unconventional or unpredictable. But it can be said that people are more prone to react and respond to situations and ideas that fall within their frames of reference, in other words their cultural orientation. This orientation can be broad, as is the case of most South Africans, where many cultures fuse or infuse the other. However, those cultural markers closest and dearest to the essence of the culture have the most impact on their receivers, irrespective of whether these markers have positive or negative meanings or value.

The sign, object, and interpretant (or interpretation) must be manipulated in such a way that the receiver immediately recognizes a product or brand to generate a specific meaning and thus a message. This is especially applicable to products aimed at a young market; the savvy generation Xers are streetwise about what advertising is about and what it does; therefore this market has to be coaxed and challenged in another way to buy the product. As a result of multinational advertising and people becoming increasingly connected, cultural and behavioural barriers are blurring and overlapping. It is for this reason that cultural uniqueness should be highlighted and used by translators.

The question can thus be asked: What is the value of a discursive-semiotic approach to translating advertisements? This can be answered by looking at the application of semiotics in the advertising industry. Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency in America uses semiotics to study and understand consumer behaviour, added to disciplines such as psychology and anthropology (Stark & Myra 1995). Within the advertising context, semioticians do the following: (i) they read the text; (ii) they read the culture -- what is relevant for the product; and (iii) they make connections between the two. The assumption is that culture is all of one piece. There is a cultural system -- a common set of assumptions, beliefs and symbols called codes -- which marks all the products of the culture: fashion, food, music, advertising, movies, and television shows. The codes are taken for granted and embedded in man’s behaviour that s/he does not realise. Semioticians drag the unconscious messages being transmitted into consciousness by isolating and identifying the signs to constitute the message. The translator has a double role: as semiotician and as transference agent or translator. The translator must create a similar effect on the receivers in the target language.

Knowledge of semiotics gives the translator a better understanding of the intrinsic appeal of an advertisement, in other words how the different elements and parts work together as a discourse to perform a certain function, and thus a message and effect. Furthermore, the translator gets additional insight into the receivers who might respond to the advertisement and buy the product, and make an estimate of the bond the consumer will form with the product.

A shortcoming of this approach is that advertisements, as a discourse, are dynamic. It might not always be obvious that a specific discourse is an advertisement. Thus the translator might not treat that particular discourse as such. Another problem is that the translator might not be fully adapted to deal with cultural nuances in the target language, and may consequently use signs that have an adverse effect on the target receivers by not generating an equivalent message (of the source message).

Although only a few examples of advertisements were analysed, it can be said that persuasive advertisements can (and should be) translated in terms of semiotic guidelines, if cultural codes are at work and as such evident. Some advertisements strive towards a state of no-cultural categorisation: in other words the advertisement focuses on emotions rather than objects or ideas.

In the case of retail advertisements (which could border on informative advertisements rather than persuasive) cultural signs or markers are not always that apparent: the language used can be plain and without idiomatic expressions or figures of speech. (This applies to all media forms in which the advertisements appear.) In that case a semiotic analysis would yield fewer results and the translator could rely more readily on other translation methods.

In cases where cultural elements play an important role in persuasive advertisements, semiotics acts as a tool or measure to gauge the cultural elements, their signification and meaning. This information provides the translator with added insights that might not always be apparent at first sight or intuitively.

It has been argued (by many theorists and practising translators) that good translators are born and not made. The point is debatable. However, a discursive-semiotic approach enables any translator to deal with persuasive advertisements from a theoretical and a practical perspective.

Translating persuasive advertisements in any medium can be problematic due to certain constraints of which money is often the major culprit. Advertisers and their advertising agencies do not always see the need for an advertisement to be translated into another language, as is the case in South Africa where English reigns in the business world. And even if the advertiser realises that there is a need to do so, the budget does not always allow it. The translator is then faced with visual material (whether a print, television or film advertisement) and is only allowed to change the words (linguistic signs). As a result, the discursive-semiotic approach cannot succeed in its totality because the context of the discourse is fixed, and can only be changed to a limited extent.

Translating radio advertisements in terms of the discursive-semiotic approach seems to be the most successful medium because it is cheap to produce and no visual material is used. The translator has total freedom to create a dynamically equivalent effect in the target language by using its cultural elements.

In the European market place there is an increasing awareness of semiotics. This awareness is evident in the large number of articles in marketing and advertising journals which mention or discuss signs and semiosis as marketing tools. As early as 1989 the first Marketing and Semiotics Symposium was held in Copenhagen; it was arranged by the Marketing Institute of the Copenhagen Business School and attended by various people from universities and business schools. This proves that semiotics is gaining prominence and spreading in the advertising industry.

Semiotics provides the translator of advertisements with a means to manipulate and manage language (linguistic sign system) and non-verbal sign systems. Thus signs can be used as cultural anchors of the message for the intended target receivers, and serve as recognition elements.

Language has always been an integral part of the business situation. Yet, language and the management thereof (such as translation and interpretation) have never been given their rightful prominence and importance in business sectors. Language has been taken for granted - merely a means to achieve certain marketing or management objectives. By showing that language is a sign system, which works in conjunction with images to promote or sell or persuade consumers into changing their behaviour, the discipline of translation and/or language practice firmly establishes itself as an important role player in the marketing and advertising industry.

Translating persuasive advertisements can be a highly creative and rewarding exercise. There are constraints such as length (television and radio advertisements) and existing material (print and television advertisements) but even so, the translator has all that the target culture and language have to offer to his/her disposal when translating.

The lifespan of most advertisements is very short – it may range from a few seconds in the receiver’s mind, to a week or even a lifetime. The secret of success of the memorable advertisements is that they achieve immortality due to their special character. Every advertiser hopes to attain such a status, but few are lucky to achieve this. The role that the translator plays in "recreating" an advertisement in a target language and culture is to present a product that is perceived as an original and not as a second-rate translation, unless the translator tries to create a specific effect by showing that the translated advertisement is a translation. It must be able to exist because of its own inherent value, and not because of the value of the original advertisement. Again semiotics plays an important role in guiding the translator to find signs and cultural codes which can achieve this objective.

Due to the information overload mentioned earlier, receivers cut or shut irrelevant information out. Current issues or newsworthy events which attract media coverage can thus be used and/or changed by the translator as a method to create relevant and equivalent messages in the target advertisements. For instance, an advertisement for Vodac cellular phones had the following heading: "Alles van die Bester". This idiomatic Afrikaans expression referred to a newsworthy incident where a prominent South African rugby coach and an aspirant rugby coach, André Bester, were involved. The surname, Bester, was used to create a pun.

By using this incident, local colour was given to the advertisement and instant recognition by the receivers followed. It illustrated the quickness of the advertiser to use controversy to the benefit of advertising the product. A humorous slant/effect/ feeling was given to a serious matter, and positive connotations with the product were established. In this specific case the translator could use the same idea when translating it into English. For example, "Everything of the Best(er)". The context could be retained and the text could be literally translated.

In the case of print advertisements which proliferate partly because they have many uses and applications and are relatively cheap to produce, the translator would have to treat the words (the linguistic signs) as symbols, indices or icons to bring about the semiotic translation (or adaptation). The text has to be manipulated to link thematically with the non-verbal signs. The translator could also anchor the meaning of the message and signs by means of the choice of words and figures of speech used.

In the case where the original advertisement has to be kept and only the text translated, it can be said that the images and visual material are static, but not the words (linguistic signs).

For instance, the text could be ironic or sarcastic to contrast with the images or visual material. The translator has to employ linguistic means to manipulate his visual material, for example by changing statements into questions or reducing words/ideas that could lead the target receiver to make her/his own deductions.

The face of advertising and the advertising campaign is changing, and so are the methods used to target new consumer markets. Persuasive advertisements are important marketing tools used to achieve this goal, but consumers are flooded with advertisements vying for their attention and money. Advertisers, consequently translators, have to find different angles and methods to address the needs and attract the attention of consumers in the new millennium. A good example of using semiotics in marketing is that of the studies carried out on behalf of British Telecommunications PLC. The aim was to develop a culturally complex advertising strategy to change deeply held gender assumptions about the way people use the telephone (Alexander, Burt, & Collinson: 1995).

The translator of advertisements is an important cog in the marketing and advertising wheel – the translator has to assume a double identity: as a receiver in the source language and culture, and as a receiver in the target language and culture. It is therefore imperative that translators are aware of the cultural codes at work in the languages to and from which they translate. When translating advertisements, the translator is the invisible negotiator between cultures, languages and commerce!