M2: Unit 3: Chapter 7 – Four features of narrative (Part II)

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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 7 – Four features of narrative (Part II)

7.1 Selective appropriation

‘In the face of a potentially limitless array of social experiences deriving from social contact with events, institutions, and people, the evaluative capacity of emplotment demands and enables selective appropriation in constructing narratives.’ (Somers and Gibson 1994:60)

Selective appropriation acknowledges the fact that is it impossible – and undesirable – to include every available event or detail when narrating a story. Certain events are selected as useful for the purpose of the narrative; anything deemed irrelevant – or which works against the chosen storyline – is excluded or downplayed. In White’s (1987:10) words, ‘every narrative, however seemingly ‘full’, is constructed on the basis of a set of events that might have been included but were left out’.

This process of selection and exclusion provides a powerful tool in the circulation of narratives. Bennett and Edelman (1985:158) describe how US news reporting deliberately leaves out any mention of events which go against the dominant narratives circulated by this type of reporting, which they describe as the US government’s struggle against formidable facts of life: ‘Information that doesn’t fit the symbolic mould can be ignored, denied, or rationalized out of serious consideration’. This can be a very powerful strategy; since the reader or viewer can not see what has been left out, he or she will usually accept what they are seeing as the full truth. This in turn will strongly influence which narrative version he or she decides to accept.


For translators and interpreters, selective appropriation can be carried out through the choice of texts or utterances to translate. While assignments are often determined by the client, translators and interpreters also regularly initiate translations themselves in support of a particular narrative. Pérez-González (2010) gives the example of a group of non-professional translators adding Spanish subtitles to a British TV interview with the Spanish ex-President José María Aznar. Their reason for subtitling the video is because it supports their narrative interpretation of Aznar’s attitudes toward foreign policy; by subtitling it into Spanish they are helping this narrative version to circulate amongst a Spanish speaking audience.

Baker (2006:73) provides a powerful example of the use of selective appropriation to support a particular narrative in her discussion of MEMRI, a US-based advocacy group which translates and circulates selected extracts from Arabic source texts, usually articles from the Arab press. While appearing to provide broad access to Arab voices for non-Arabic speakers, the website carefully chooses articles which narrate Arab societies as extremist, dangerous and anti-Semitic. Here, selective appropriation is carried out to provide apparently convincing evidence in support of the narrative to which the group subscribes.

7.2  Temporality

‘Narrativity demands that we discern the meaning of any single event only in temporal and spatial relationship to other events’ (Somers and Gibson 1994:59).

Temporality refers to the positioning of narrative in a particular time and space. This means where and when the narrative is told, as well as the order in which events are narrated. As Baker (2006:51) writes, ‘the elements of a narrative are always placed in some sequence … the order in which they are placed carries meaning’.

While narratives usually have a beginning, middle and projected end, they are not necessarily told in chronological order. In fact, McCormick (2005:152) argues that ‘temporal organization is seldom strictly chronological’. As with any retelling of narratives, translators and interpreters are in a position to change the order in which a story is told. Baker (2006:51) mentions a 1969 English translation of Milan Kundera’s The Joke, in which the translators rearranged this nonlinear novel into chronological order because they believed this would be easier for readers to understand. This type of reordering raises ethical questions since the order in which narratives are told affects their meaning and moral purpose. The Joke, for example, will no longer carry the same impact which the author intended once its markedly non-linear form is reconstructed.

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The fact that narratives are situated in space and time also allows us to draw on past narratives to reinforce present ones. As Poletta (1998:139) puts it, the temporality of narrative ‘equips it to integrate past, present, and future events and to align individual and collective identities during periods of change’. This is a tool often used by resistance movements and activist groups. Baker (2009:237) cites the example of Tlaxaca, an activist translation group whose mission statement declares that they have named themselves after ‘the unfortunate city-state of the same name which committed the tragic mistake of trusting an empire – the Spanish one – in order to fight against another less powerful one – the Náhua – just to find out only too late that nobody should trust empires’. Activating this historical narrative gives weight and authority to the guiding narrative of this group: an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist narrative of the United States as the leading force in a powerful ‘Corporate Global Empire’.

7.3 The four features described over the last two chapters can all be exploited in order to present a particular narrative in a certain light, as I will discuss in greater detail in the following chapters on activism and framing.

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