M2: Unit 3: Chapter 10 – Advantages of narrative theory

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Chapter 1: Introduction Chapter 5: Relationships between narratives Chapter 9: Narration and frames
Chapter 2: Redefining narrative Chapter 6: Four features of narrative (Part I) Chapter 10: Advantages of narrative theory
Chapter 3: Four types of narrative (Part I) Chapter 7: Four features of narrative (Part II) Chapter 11: Using narrative theory
Chapter 4: Four types of narrative (Part II) Chapter 8: Ethics and activism Chapter 12: Bibliography

Chapter 10 – Advantages of narrative theory

10.1 This unit has aimed to provide an introduction to narrative theory and has hopefully already given you some ideas about how this can be used to explore aspects of translating and interpreting. However, you may still be unsure about how this theory can be of use in relation to your own research.

As you were reading through this unit you may have considered the fact that many of the issues covered here could also have been explored using other theories from within translating and interpreting studies: norm theory, for example, or post-colonial theories of translation. This is not surprising; as with all categories, there are always areas of overlap between theories and none should be seen as an absolute, definitive way of exploring any topic.

However, narrative theory certainly has some interesting advantages as a theoretical tool. This final chapter aims to identify some advantages of thinking of translation as renarration and to explore some potential areas of research.

10.2 We have already touched on some of the advantages of using a sociological approach to narrative as a theoretical tool for approaching translation and interpreting studies. Here is a fuller exploration of some of the main benefits:


  • Flexibility: Narrative theory provides a highly flexible theoretical framework compared to some essentialist approaches which tie identity down to one unchangeable attribute such as gender, race, ethnicity or religion. A narrative theory approach accepts that each individual subscribes to a criss-crossing network of sometimes conflicting narratives, allowing the possibility of exploring inconsistencies within translated texts. For example, rather than using the polarising concepts of foreignising and domesticating strategies as a framework (Venuti 1994), narrative theory allows for the fact that most translators use ‘a combination of the various strategies’ (O’Sullivan 2005:99).Instead of skimming over inconsistencies or explaining them away as anomalies, narrative theory allows us to embrace them as evidence of the many facets of our complex, shifting narrative identities which we draw on when we translate or interpret.
  • Dynamism: Narrative theory allows us to look at translation and interpreting behaviour in dynamic rather than static terms due to its acceptance of the embeddedness of the actor within relationships which shift over time and space (Somers and Gibson 1994:65). This can be useful when looking at phenomena such as retranslation or the comparative status of source and target texts. Robinson (2011), for example, examines Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translations of Tolstoy’s work, in which the translators collaborated with the author to cut several passages relating to the Crimean War. Robinson argues that Tolstoy’s attitude towards the conflict had changed and he wished to revise his original text through the translation, casting doubt on the concept of the source text as definitive and unchangeable. As Robinson says (ibid.), narrative theory allows us to ‘study the full complexity of this translation history, without tying ourselves to the mast of a single ‘canonical version’ of the source text or stopping up our ears to the siren call of rhetorical situation’.


  • Real life: One important aspect of narrative theory is its focus on translators and interpreters as ‘real-life individuals rather than theoretical abstractions’ (Baker 2007:154). Narrative theory focuses on specific, real-life situations, allowing us to explain translational choices in relation to wider social and political contexts without losing sight of the individual text, actor and event. Furthermore, this approach acknowledges that it is impossible for any individual – including researchers – to stand outside of their own narrative location, demanding us to recognise our own subjectivity as researchers.
  • Resistance: Another key advantage of narrative theory is the equal attention it gives to questions of dominance and resistance. Baker (2007:152) criticises norm theory, for example, because of its tendency to focus on ‘repeated, abstract, systemic behaviour [which] privileges strong patterns of socialization into that behaviour and tends to gloss over the numerous individual and group attempts at undermining dominant patterns and prevailing political and social dogma’. While narrative theory accepts that there are dominant narratives in any given society, it also recognises that these can either be accepted or rejected and undermined by providing alternative versions of narratives. It is this embracing of resistance which has attracted many theorists to use a narrative approach to explore the work of activist translators and interpreters.