M2: Unit 3: Chapter 3 – Four types of narrative (Part I)

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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 3 – Four types of narrative (Part I)

3.1 This chapter will explore the four categories of narrative described by Somers and Gibson (1994). This framework for describing categories has subsequently been used by Baker and other scholars including Boeri and Pérez-González as a useful tool for exploring narratives in relation to translating and interpreting. Alternative typologies can be seen in Hart (1992) and Pratt (2003).

Somers and Gibson divide narratives into four broad, overlapping categories: 1. Ontological (or ‘personal’) narratives, 2. public narratives, 3. conceptual (or ‘disciplinary’) narratives and 4. metanarratives.

3.2 Ontological (personal narratives)

‘These are the stories that social actors use to make sense of – indeed, in order to act in – their lives. Ontological narratives are used to define who we are; this in turn is a precondition for knowing what to do’. (Somers and Gibson 1994:61)

‘Ontological’ or ‘personal’ narratives are the stories that we tell about ourselves. They are central to the formation of our own identity and therefore influence the way we act in our lives. The individual telling the narrative is usually the protagonist of these stories. As Baker (2009:226) puts it, ‘Personal narratives are narratives of the self, typically stories which locate the narrating subject at the centre of events’. The genre of autobiography offers an example of personal narrative in action.


As mentioned in chapter 2, the narrative interpretation of ‘identity’ is not something fixed but rather changes and adapts over time, depending on the set of narratives to which we subscribe at any given moment. As Somers and Gibson (1994:61)  put it, ‘ontological narratives make identity and the self something that one becomes’.

Baker points out that translators and interpreters are often involved in translating personal narratives; the autobiography of a Holocaust survivor, for example, or a court testimony of a rape victim (2009:226). These may often be traumatic, particularly when the personal narrative of the speaker clashes with the narratives to which the translator or interpreter subscribes. What is more, language itself can form an important aspect of people’s personal narratives. Researchers interviewing Polish immigrants in Manchester found that the Polish language was linked to a preferred identity and lifestyle (Temple and Koterba 2009). When personal narratives are translated into another language, they are inevitably changed and reappropriated.

Somers and Gibson argue that people are not free to invent their own narratives but instead draw on a selection of the public narratives available at any one time, although they adjust these stories to fit their own identities. Oittinen (2006:41) provides a good example of this when she describes how translators of children’s literature translate according to their own understanding of childhood: ‘On the one hand, it is something unique, based on each individual’s personal history; on the other hand, it is something collectivised in all society. Anything we create for children reflects our views on being a child’. Personal narratives about childhood are constructed both from very personal experiences of childhood and the public narratives about childhood circulating at any particular time.

3.3 Public narratives

‘Those narratives attached to cultural and institutional formations larger than the single individual, to intersubjective networks or institutions, however local or grand.’ (Somers and Gibson 1994:62)

According to Somers and Gibson, public narratives (also known as ‘shared narratives’) are the stories which circulate amongst groups larger than the individual, such as in the family, workplace, church, government or nation. Baker includes narratives belonging to a society’s literary system, advertising, cinema and political activism, while Boéri (2008:26) explores ‘professional narratives’, or ‘stories and explanations that professionals elaborate for themselves and others about the nature and ethos of their activity’.  Unlike personal narratives, the protagonist in a public narrative is not the narrating self (Baker 2009:226).

Various versions of a particular public narrative compete within a given society at any one time. Baker (2006:33) mentions the numerous, conflicting narratives about the war in Iraq, Islamic fundamentalism or gay rights. Bennett and Alderman (1986:156) argue that the most common public narrative circulating in US news reporting is the narrative of ‘the government and its agents confronting formidable ‘facts of life’, such as the deceitfulness of Communists’. A glance through the newspapers on any given day will provide numerous examples; on the day of writing, different media outlets were circulating competing narratives about the French government’s ban on face veils in public places.


Public narratives constantly shift and change. This is often reflected in the media, changes to literature or advertising campaigns. For example, many 1950s advertising campaigns reflect public narratives about the woman as housewife and mother which would no longer be accepted by UK consumers.  One example can be seen in the changes made to the Swedish children’s book Pippi Longstocking. First published in 1945, Pippi’s rebellious personality came under attack in the 1960s as a result of changing public narratives about child rearing. As a result of these changing public narratives (and because of the German translator’s own narrative location), passages in the book underlining Pippi’s rebellious character were edited out of the 1965 German translation (O’Sullivan 2005:83).

Baker describes public narratives as ‘the bread and butter of the translation and interpreting business’, pointing out that ‘every time we translate an article for the media, a novel, a religious sermon or a political text of any kind we automatically give currency to the set of public narratives encoded in it, irrespective of how or why we translate it’ (2009:226). As well as playing a pivotal role in the elaboration of public narratives, translators and interpreters can also challenge and subvert those narratives, as we will see in Chapter 8.

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