Chapter 5 – Relationships between narratives
5.1 How do we access these reality-constructing narratives which help shape our identities? Somers and Gibson argue that there are only a limited selection of narratives to choose from: ‘People are guided to act in certain ways, and not others on the basis of the projections, expectations, and memories derived from a multiplicity but ultimately limited repertoire of available social, public and cultural narratives’ (Somers 1994:614) [my emphasis].
Narratives are circulated through a variety of channels, including TV, literature, professional associations, educational establishments, the internet and emails. Different versions of narratives constantly compete for our attention and the opportunity to feed into our sense of self. However, not all narrative versions receive the same level of exposure. As Somers and Gibson point out, ‘which kinds of narratives will socially predominate is contested politically and will depend in large part on the distribution of power’ (1994:73).
Considering the power of narratives to shape our identities and guide our actions, this idea instantly raises ethical questions. What happens to the narratives circulated by groups with less access to power in a particular society? Who chooses which narratives will dominate at any one time, and how do they control this? In Bennett and Edelman’s (1985:160) words, ‘The awareness that every acceptance of a narrative involves a rejection of others makes the issue politically and personally vital’.
5.2 At certain moments in time, such as during wartime or under repressive regimes, our access to narratives is severely restricted. In these situations, one version of a public narrative becomes so dominant that it allows no room for competitors. This is evident in the case of any regime employing censorship as a general rule. Thomson-Wohlgemut (2006:48) describes how literature in socialist East Germany was strictly censored in order to contribute to the creation of ‘a new kind of personality, the so-called ‘socialist personality’’. The only children’s literature translated into German was that which ‘depicted brave, active and energetic heroes the children could use as a role model’ (ibid.). Here children and adults were provided with a limited set of narratives with which to construct their identities; any conflicting narrative would not be allowed to circulate.
Sometimes personal narratives clash with public ones and are deemed unacceptable. This can be traumatic for people moving to different countries where different public narratives prevail. Baker (2006:31) argues that interpreters working with refugees and asylum seekers often witness a conflict between migrants’ personal narratives and the narratives of the receiving culture. Barsky (2005:226) has described how asylum seekers are often asked ‘to renounce their previous self and create, successfully or not, an ’other’ deemed appropriate for the cause’. In other words, they must revise their personal narratives to fit more comfortably with the dominant public narratives of their new country of residence.
Personal narratives can also be reappropriated by other people. While autobiographies are powerful examples of personal narratives, what happens in the case of biographies? The protagonist of the story is apparently at its centre, and yet this ‘personal narrative’ is renarrated from the narrative location of the writer. Elliott (2008) argues that while Mark’s gospel appears to present the ‘truth’ of the life of Jesus, it in fact – like all biographies – transforms the person at its core into a literary figure: ‘Here we have a literary character by the name of Jesus. Select traits and characteristics, words and behaviors ascribed to him are incorporated into the narrative to serve the purposes thereof. In other words, the narrative dictates the figure’. Whenever a personal narrative is retold or ‘renarrated’, it will inevitably be told according to the narrative location of the narrator or narrators.
5.3 ‘Individuals cannot narrate themselves in a vacuum but must draw on public narratives to develop and legitimize their sense of self; and public narratives can only persist and gain legitimacy if enough individuals are willing to subscribe to them and narrate themselves in line with the values and beliefs embodied in such narratives’. (Baker 2009:226)
Dominant public narratives are by definition accepted by many people; on the other hand, dominant narratives need enough people to subscribe to them in order to maintain their power. The relationship between the two needs to be reciprocal in order for these narratives to flourish. If a public narrative is rejected by a majority of people, it automatically loses its dominant position. Baker (2006:30) offers the examples of Nazi Germany and South Africa under Apartheid; without a great many people accepting the public narrative of racial superiority and narrating themselves as racially superior to others, these regimes would not have survived.
This is where the idea of activism comes into play. Just as personal narratives can sustain dominant public narratives, they can also be used to resist them; Baker mentions feminist translators who rescue forgotten accounts of female experience. Activists can also form groups to promote alternative versions of narratives in order to challenge or subvert the dominant narratives of their time. For a more complete discussion of activism in relation to translation and interpreting, see Chapter 8.
5.4 In the next chapter we will look at how narratives are constructed, particularly in relation to the role of translators and interpreters in circulating and contesting these narratives.