M2: Unit 3: Chapter 6 – Four features 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 6 – Four features of narrative (Part I)

6.1 Over the next two chapters I will outline the four features of narrative put forward by Somers and Gibson (1994), exploring how these relate to examples from translation and interpreting studies. As with the four types of narrative seen in chapters 3 and 4, the boundaries of these categories are not fixed; they overlap and depend on one another, as we will soon see. The four features are: 1. relationality, 2. causal emplotment, 3. selective appropriation and 4. temporality.

6.2 Relationality

Relationality concerns the way in which events relate to one another as part of a coherent whole. The human mind cannot make sense of isolated events which are not presented as narrative; it is not enough to select events from life and put these in an appropriate order. As Bruner (1991:8) puts it, events need to be ‘constituted in the light of the overall narrative’. Somers and Gibson (1994:59) describe relationality as ‘precisely why narrativity turns ‘events’ into ‘episodes’’. This is done through causal emplotment.

6.3  Causal emplotment

Somers and Gibson (ibid.:59) describe causal emplotment as ‘an accounting (however fantastic or implicit) of why a narrative has the story line that it does’. Causal emplotment is about giving significance to particular instances in order to explain why things have happened in a particular way. Hayden White (1987) distinguishes narrative from medieval annals, which listed events in chronological sequence year by year without singling out any particular event or providing any kind of ‘plot’ or storyline. In an account of this type, all events are equal and no value judgments are made. Narrative, on the other hand, will always single out certain people as protagonists and certain events as turning points, and will tend to explain why one event leads to another. White (ibid.:24) sees the narrative impulse as a moralising impulse: ‘Where, in any account of reality, narrativity is present, we can be sure that morality or a moralising impulse is present too’. Causal emplotment is central to this ‘moralising impulse’. It provides a way of understanding why things happen; this in turn helps us to decide how to act in our lives.


There are many ways in which narrators can give significance to certain events or aspects of a narrative. Sequencing or ordering, for example; an event perceived by the narrator as important can be placed in a position which highlights its importance. Alternatively, specific events can be emphasised through repetition. One example can be seen in Margot Badran’s translation of the autobiography of Huda Sha’rawi, a pioneer of women’s rights in the Arab World. Kahf (2000) shows how Badran’s translation subtly emphasises elements which point to Sha’rawi’s European connections. By subtly adding this new emphasis to the English translation, the English reader’s narrative impulse to explain why things happen will in many cases lead them to believe that Sha’rawi’s links to Europe have caused her liberal views on women’s rights. Whether Badran’s actions were deliberate or not, her subtle manipulation of the text to explain how Sha’rawi’s liberal views developed points to her own narrative location.

Another powerful way of emphasising certain elements is to leave others out, which is done through ‘selective appropriation’, as we will see in Chapter 7.