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How do I apply narrative theory?

Socio-narrative theory in translation studies
Sue-Ann Harding

Translation and Interpreting Institute Hamad Bin Khalita University

Since the publication of Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account (Baker

2006), there has been a growing interest in applying socio-narrative theory to
Translation Studies, with Bakers ideas extended and applied to several different areas of inquiry. This article gives a brief overview of these projects, and
discusses in more depth the example of my own application and development of
narrative theory. This includes a revised typology of narratives, the combination
of narratological and sociological approaches, an intratextual model of analysis,
and a new emphasis on the importance of narrators and temporary narrators in
the (re)configuration of narratives. The article ends with a brief discussion on
further topics within Translation and Interpreting Studies to which narrative
theory might be applied.
Keywords: socio-narrative theory, research methodology, textual analysis,
narrator(s), news reporting, online media, Beslan, Russia, Russian/English



The use of narrative as a tool for academic investigation beyond the confines of
fiction and literature has steadily gained ground over the twentieth, and now into
the twenty-first, century. From the narrative form of the case study developed in
medicine, psychology and psychoanalysis, to a shift towards narrative in fields
such as history, anthropology, law, biology, physics, education, philosophy, theology, gender studies, and political science, and the use of narrative in the study of
contemporary topics such as gaming, street art, and urban geography, scholars
from a wide range of disciplines and inter-disciplines have critically and fruitfully
engaged with narrative.1
This article looks at ways in which scholars in Translation Studies have also
begun to engage with the theory, and uses my own work as an extended example

Target 24:2 (2012), 286309. doi 10.1075/target.24.2.04har

issn 09241884 / e-issn 15699986 John Benjamins Publishing Company

How do I apply narrative theory? 287

of its application and development. These include a revised typology of narratives,

the combination of sociological and narrative approaches, the elaboration of an
intra-textual model of analysis and a new emphasis on the importance of narrators and temporary narrators in the configuration of narratives. I have found
socio-narrative theory to be a robust, intuitively satisfying conceptual framework,
useful for describing and accounting for the complex, dynamic, constructed, reconstructed, and translated worlds in which we live and act, including our own
place(s) in it as researchers. This article is intended as something of a map for
other Translation and Interpreting Studies scholars interested in narrative theory
and its application to new areas of research. It offers a sketch of recent research, a
more detailed discussion of a particular case and a conclusion that briefly considers other areas to which the theory might be applied.
2. Narrative theory and translation studies
In his account of descriptive and systemic approaches to the study of translation,
Theo Hermans (1999) draws on the notion of the invisible college (Crane 1972)
to describe the growth and diffusion of these approaches through the personal
interaction and intellectual exchange of (originally a small group of) like-minded,
interest-sharing scholars. The process he describes occurred, in this case, over several decades and so is not immediately analogous to the very recent introduction
of narrative theory to translation studies. Nevertheless, Hermans (and Cranes)
emphasis on both social and cognitive contexts, on material as well as intellectual circumstances (Hermans 1999, 15), is relevant here. The communication,
exchange and development of ideas involves practitioners working in an institutional environment, regular personal contacts and a sense of solidarity, and a
material as well as an intellectual infrastructure (Hermans 1999, 10), all of which
could, over the last few years, be found among narrative theory scholars.
Baker (2006) initiated the application of narrative in translation and interpreting studies.2 Baker draws on and with her focus on translation aims to
supplement, a strand of narrative emerging primarily from psychology and social
and communication theory, the crucial idea of which is that narratives do not
merely represent, but constitute, the world. Narratives are the stories we elaborate
in order to make meaning of our lives and to both guide and justify our actions.
They are not limited to a particular genre or to single texts but cut across time and
texts (Baker 2006, 12) and are configured from the elements around us. Bakers
monograph is structured around a typology of four kinds of narratives (discussed
in 2.1 below), eight features of narrative,3 the notion of framing as an active strategy that implies agency (Baker 2006, 106), and, drawing extensively on the notion
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288 Sue-Ann Harding

of Fishers narrative paradigm (1984, 1985, 1987, 1997), ways in which we assess,
and ultimately subscribe to, different narratives. As the title of her book indicates,
Baker is chiefly concerned with the roles of narratives, translation and interpreting in situations of violent political conflict, and the way narratives and translated
narratives are used by various powers to legitimize their version of events (Baker
2006, 1). These initial interests continue to be reflected in her work (see 2007,
2008, 2009, 2010a, 2010b).
Harding (2009, 2012) is a direct response to Bakers work and an attempt to
further develop her application of socio-narrative theory to Translation Studies.
While Baker uses a broad-spectrum approach to exemplify narrative theory and
its relevance to issues of translation, my study offers a sustained textual analysis
and detailed case study that functions as a testing ground for both the applicability of narrative theory to, and the investigation of, a sample of online media
reportage. Other scholars who have sought to apply Bakers approach explore a
variety of data, including Italian diaspora fiction, Arabic childrens literature, (re)
narrations of Edward Said and Palestinian women in Arabic, and networks of politically motivated, activist interpreters. Thus, Baldos (2008) study, Translation as
Re-Narration in Canadian-Italian Writing, investigates a trilogy of novels by the
internationally-acclaimed Italian-Canadian author Nino Ricci that traces the lives
of an Italian family before and after they migrate to Canada in 1961. Drawing
on poststructuralist narratological understandings of plot, focalisation and voice,
Baldo explores the novelists use of codeswitching (between English and Standard
Italian or dialect) and the ways in which codeswitching passages are negotiated in
the Italian translation of the novels. Also a literary study, Ayoubs research (2010)
examines the set of stories rewritten, adapted, and translated for children by the
renowned Egyptian author Kamil Al-Kilani (18971959). Rather than on the texts
themselves, Ayoubs primary focus is on the ways in which framing is effected at
sites around text, and she investigates introductions, titles, cover blurbs, footnotes,
and additional glossaries, poems, testimonials and questions.
Al-Herthani (2009) also focuses on paratextual material, drawing particularly
on Genette (1991, 1997), and the notions of framing and counter-framing. His
topic is the legacy of Palestinian-American cultural theorist Edward Said,4 the
translations of his work into Arabic, and the re-narrations of Saids works by various types of Arab institutions and mediators, such as the academy, media, publishing houses, intellectuals, writers and translators. Al Sharif (2009) also turns her
attention to translated Arabic and its impacts on regional cultures and politics. She
examines the translation programme of the Middle East Media Research Institute
(MEMRI), a highly influential web-based advocacy group.5 Al Sharif carries out
a detailed analysis of MEMRIs online reports and investigates ways in which
the site actively uses translation to select, deselect and frame material in order to
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How do I apply narrative theory? 289

systematically elaborate and widely circulate negative, dehumanising, and reductionist narratives of Palestinians and Palestinian women.
Finally, Bori (2009) adopts a socio-narrative approach to investigate the
workings of Babels, the international network of volunteers recognised as one of
the most politicised communities of translators and interpreters (2009, 6), particularly with regard to the Alter-Globalization Movement and members active, yet
complex, pursuit and negotiation of an alternative society marked by a commitment to organizational principles such as (linguistic) diversity, inclusive participation and horizontality. Boris work examines online data posted by members on
Babels online forums to trace the evolving narrative positions of the organisation
in terms of its scope of involvement, financial structure, and decision-making processes. She also examines online data published by AIIC (Association internationale des interprtes de confrence) to explore the external re-narration of Babels by
members of the professional conference interpreting community (see also Bori
2008 and 2010).
While these projects might be thought of as first generation responses to
Bakers work, narrative continues to interest both new and established researchers. For example, Abou-Bakr (in progress) is a contrastive study of the translations
and paratextual features of published collections of Palestinian folktales, examining ways in which these frame the stories with regard to Palestinian identity and
nation building. Summers (in progress) uses theories of social narrative to analyse
translations of the writings of East German writer, Christa Wolf, examining the
extent to which the author and her texts have been appropriated into different
social narratives of intellectual dissidence or complicity within the Socialist regime in the GDR. Pasmatzi (in progress) looks at how conflicts between historical and political narratives manifest themselves in the Greek translations of several high-profile Anglophone historical novels concerning the Greek Civil War
(19461949). Youssef (in progress) aims to problematize the idea of European
influence on 1920s Arabic discourses by investigating processes of translation in
the Cairene press of the time. Helin (2006) examines representations of the Islamic
world in Finnish translations of National Geographic. Elliott (2008) explores the
intersection of translation and narrative discourse in relation to Bible translation,
and particularly with regard to literary characters. Jones (2009) examines international conflict resolution and mediation, Aaltonen (2009) looks at Finnish theatre
translation, McDonough Dolmaya (2010) works on the localization of global and
Canadian top brand websites in Canada, and Al-Ghamedi (2012) writes on the
paratextual framing of two novels by Saudi writer Turk al-Hamad.

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290 Sue-Ann Harding

3. Applying narrative theory

My own work (Harding 2009, 2012) turns to the hostage-taking of School No.1
in Beslan, Southern Russia. On Wednesday 1 September 2004, an armed group
seized and held captive over a thousand people, including many children. By the
time the siege came to its bloody and chaotic end three days later, more than three
hundred people had been killed and hundreds more wounded. The atrocity attracted significant international attention, and even as the details of the attack remain contested and unclarified (Dunlop 2006, 2009, Phillips 2007), it is now seen
as a vital turning point in Russias approach to terrorism and in the operations of
the Putin presidency (Hutchings and Rulyova 2009).
I have undertaken a detailed, sustained textual analysis examining online
reporting published by three very different Russian-language news websites: 1)
RIA-Novosti (www.rian.ru, 3 March 2011), a large, state-controlled agency with
close ties to the Russian government; 2) Kavkazcenter (www.kavkazcenter.com, 3
March 2011), the major site of the Chechen armed resistance, and 3) Caucasian
Knot (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, 3 March 2011), a regional specialist site founded by
Memorial, Russias internationally-renowned human rights organisation, all of
which covered the events in Beslan as they were unfolding during the course of the
three day siege and its immediate aftermath. The examination of both Russian and
English texts also raises issues of translation, particularly in regard to online and
fringe media, and ways in which translation and omission affect the construction
and reconstruction of narratives. It also extrapolates from the case study of Beslan
to reflect upon the potential for certain kinds of narrative to either perpetuate or
dissolve situations of violent political conflict.
Narrative theory is adopted not only as an analytical tool with which to approach the data, but in order to investigate and develop the theory itself. Thus,
while the study takes Baker (2006) and her major sources (particularly Somers and
Gibson 1994 and Bruner 1991) as its starting point, it departs from these by proposing and exploring a revised typology of narratives, the combination of narratological and sociological approaches, an intratextual model of analysis, and new
emphasis on the importance of narrators in the configuration and reconfiguration
of narratives. All of these are discussed in this article.
3.1 A typology of narratives
A cardinal assumption of a narrative approach to data is that the narrative is the
unit of analysis. Somers and Gibson (1994) distinguish between four different dimensions or kinds (Somers 1997) of narrative: ontological, public, conceptual, and
meta-narrative. Ontological narratives, the stories that social actors use to make
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How do I apply narrative theory? 291

sense of indeed, in order to act in their lives (Somers and Gibson 1994,
61) are what Baker calls personal narratives, defined as personal stories that we
tell ourselves about our place in the world and our own personal history (2006,
28). Public narratives are those narratives attached to cultural and institutional
formations larger than the individual (Somers and Gibson 1994, 62), such as the
family, the workplace, religious and educational institutions, media, government,
and nation, examples to which Baker (2006, 3338) adds literature and a societys
literary system, advertising, cinema and political activism; Bori further includes
professional narratives, stories and explanations that professionals elaborate for
themselves and others about the nature and ethos of their activity (2008, 26).
The third type of narrative in the model is conceptual narrativity, expanded by
Somers into conceptual/analytic/sociological narrativity and defined as the concepts and explanations that we construct as social researchers (Somers 1997, 85).
Baker extends the category to include disciplinary narratives in any field of study
(2006, 39) and broadens the definition to the stories and explanations that scholars in any field elaborate for themselves and others about their object of inquiry
(ibid.). Finally, meta-narratives are the master narratives in which we are embedded as contemporary actors in history, described as the epic dramas of our
time and progressive narratives of teleological unfolding such as Capitalism vs.








Figure 1. A revised typology of narratives

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292 Sue-Ann Harding

Communism, Barbarism vs. Civilisation, or Marxism and the Triumph of Class

Struggle (Somers 1997, 86). Baker cites Bourdieus myth of globalization and
the narrative of economic rationality, the Cold War, the War on Terror, and the
Holocaust as further examples (2006, 4446).
Rather than differentiating between these four types of narrative in a flat model, I revised the model into one that begins with a typology of two: (a) personal
narratives and (b) shared or collective narratives, which encompass the remaining
three types from the original model (now called societal, theoretical, and metanarratives), to which I added the category of local narratives (see Figure 1).
This dual typology stems from the assumption, perhaps overlooked in the
original model, that there is a difference between personal and other types of narratives. Personal narratives are those that individuals construct about the self (and
use to construct the self), and in doing so, assume a certain amount of individual
responsibility and accountability for them. In contrast, shared or collective narratives include the stories that are told and retold by numerous members of a
society over a long period of time (Baker 2006, 29). They are the narratives that
underpin the social order (ibid.), that circulate in an individuals environment,
that make up the narrative frameworks of the community (2006, 31). Thus,
these are narratives that are constructed collectively about the collective (and
which also, ultimately, construct the collective group) through processes of collaboration, consensus and coercion.
It is acknowledged that personal narratives can never be constructed in isolation from the collective narratives in which individuals are embedded (Somers
and Gibson 1994, Whitebrook 2001, Baker 2006), and also that collective narratives rely on compatible personal narratives in order to gain currency and
acceptance (Baker 2006, 30). Yet ultimately, there remains a distinction between
narratives that are authored (where authorship is understood to mean a sense of
ownership and autonomy) by individuals, and which may, or may not, be communicated to various degrees, (see Riessman 1993), and narratives that are authored
collaboratively and consensually. A dual typology highlights both this distinction
and the interplay between them.
In the case of my study, this dual typology was particularly useful in focusing attention on the eyewitness accounts included in the reportage on Beslan. It
enabled me to see personal narratives of eyewitnesses and hostage survivors as
crucial, contributing components to the collective narratives being constructed
about Beslan when the town had suddenly become such a crowded, confused and
dangerous place. Thus, it was especially revealing to discover, through the textual
analysis, how eyewitness accounts were marginalised, manipulated, selectively appropriated into, or simply deselected from, each primary narrative text.

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How do I apply narrative theory? 293

Other revisions to the original model include the addition of a separate category, local narratives, which may, in a sense, be thought of as the basis or raw
material of all the other subsequent categories. These are narratives relating particular events (and the particular actions of particular actors) in particular places
at particular times. They may also be thought of as bounded or limited in the
same way in which local is used in medicine to describe something that is confined to a limited area or part. These are the narratives of everyday conversations,
the replies to what did you do today? and what happened? They may be barely
articulated, or they may be communicated, circulated, published, the stuff of arguments, disputes, newspaper stories, police reports, court transcripts, oral histories, journals, letters, emails, blog posts, tweets, and so on. The hostage-taking
in Beslans School No.1 in September 2004 is considered to be a local narrative
because it concerns specific times, places, people and events.
As with the distinctive category of personal narratives discussed above, the
addition of this category seemed necessary in order to be able to distinguish between smaller narratives (characterised by concrete, specific and particular elements) and larger narratives (characterised by ever-more abstract elements) in
a way that is not immediately apparent in the original model. The idea that local
narratives are, like personal narratives, crucial contributing components to these
larger narratives enabled me to focus my attention on details and specifics in the
data that may otherwise have gone unnoticed. Indeed, the notion of awkward
details that seemed to jar against narrative coherence became a key part of my conclusion that reflected on ideas of resistance against the reductionist, homogenising
narratives that circulate so readily in societies.
My revised typology also suggests alternative names for two of the original
categories, further clarifying the original model. Societal is used rather than
public, in order to emphasise the circulation and operation of these narratives
in the various units and institutions of society, however local or grand, micro or
macro (Somers and Gibson 1994, 62). The term also avoids possible confusion
arising from the term public narratives because not all of these societal narratives will necessarily be public, that is, in the public domain. It is often the case that
social institutions, private companies, religious organisations and government
agencies will have, alongside their public narratives, narratives which they prefer
to keep out of the public domain. Leaked information that finds its way into
the Wikileak archives and onto the front pages of newspapers could be said to be
one or more societal narratives that were never, or not yet, intended to be public.
Public narratives then, can be used to indicate (any) narratives that circulates in
the public sphere. Theoretical rather than conceptual/disciplinary narratives
are reconceptualized to include any narratives of theory. This moves the category
beyond the privileged confines of academia (see Baker 2006, 174 n11) and focuses
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294 Sue-Ann Harding

on the act of theorising that these narratives involve, particularly with regard to
their use of abstract terms to account for concrete events and situations (Harding
2009, 2012).
The significance of the use of abstract terms in the construction of certain
types of narratives is highlighted in a further revision to the original typology:
the placing of the four different categories of shared or collective narratives on
a continuum stretching from particular to general, as indicated by the dark,
vertical arrow in Figure 1. While such a visual representation can, of course, only
give a very approximate indication of the concepts which inspired it, the diagram
is intended to draw attention to both the interconnectedness of the separate categories and their porous, indistinct boundaries as well as the clear differences between the types of narrative at either end of the continuum, namely local and
Theoretical and meta-narratives are characterized by the abstract quality of
their elements. Indeed, theoretical narratives might be thought of as the point on
this continuum at which the relationships between particular and general narratives become problematic as theory and analysis struggle to remain grounded
in the specific narratives that inform them even as they try to generalize and account for more than any specific set of circumstances at any given time. Somers
and Gibson (1994) grapple with this, and Alasdair MacIntyre also reflects on the
hazardous relationship between particularity and generality:
[I]t is in moving forward from such particularity that the search for the good, the
universal, consists. Yet particularity can never be simply left behind or obliterated.
The notion of escaping from it into a realm of entirely universal maxims which
belong to man as suchis an illusion and an illusion with painful consequences.
When men and women identify what are in fact their partial and particular causes
too easily and too completely with the cause of some universal principle, they usually behave worse than they would otherwise do. (1981, 221)

Particular narratives are routinely embedded into generic stories (Bruner 1991)
considered generic insofar as they are recognisable by general rather than specific elements, and also known in the literature as master plots, archetypes (Abbott
2008), skeletal stories or canonical stories (Baker 2006).6 Embedding a particular
narrative into a generic story is a means of making sense of that narrative and filling in any missing details (Bruner 1991, Bennett and Edelman 1985). It can also be
an active process of signification (Baker 2006, 106), used to shape interpretations
(re-narrations) of a particular narrative, its specific events and actors.7 The ways
in which personal and local narratives are embedded into larger, general, metanarratives or, from a different perspective, the appropriation or framing of local
narratives into meta-narratives forms a core part of my work.8

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How do I apply narrative theory? 295

Theorising narrative types in this way enables a much more explicit discussion
of ways in which narratives interact with and contest each other. Again, as with
the new focus on personal and local narratives, being able to define more clearly
(and thus identify) these abstract narratives in my data allowed me to see patterns
across the three Russian narratives (all use different abstract narratives to frame
the Beslan hostage-taking) and in the process of translation (abstract, reductionist
narratives are reinforced in translation while smaller particular narratives are
marginalised or simply eliminated).
3.2 Socio-narrative: Combining narratological and sociological approaches
to narrative
A second way in which I have developed narrative theory is through the deliberate combination of narratological and sociological approaches, (hence my term
socio-narrative) even though Baker clearly distances herself from narratology
(2006, 34). Al-Hertani (2009) and Baldo (2008) also do this although with different emphases. Al-Herthani (2009) draws on the central notions of paratextual
and peretextual features developed in the work of French narratologist, Grard
Genette. Baldo describes a trajectory from classical narratology, popularised by
such structuralist critics as Genette, Prince, Rimmon-Kenan, Bal, [and] Toolan
(2008, 39), through the idea of textuality, (the interplay of the meaning of the
author with the meaning of the reader (2008, 42)), to post-structuralist narratology with its emphases on the importance of historicity and context in narrative
construction, and the links between literature and lived experience (2008, 46) and
finally to sociological approaches to narrative.
My work draws largely on that of Mieke Bal, whose Narratology: An
Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (1985/1997), now in a third, revised edition
(2009) proved useful because of its clarity, systematicity, and thoroughness. It is
this structuralist approach to the assemblage of a precise vocabulary and clearly
defined concepts (see also Fludernik 2009, Herman et al 2007) that I see as one of
the most compelling reasons to combine narratology with sociological approaches
to narrative. While sociological approaches to narrative expand the definition,
nature, and consequence of the object(s) of our investigation from discrete,
if broadly defined, texts to diffuse, amorphous configurationsthat cut across
time and texts (Baker 2006, 4), narratology can provide a rigorous, explicit lexicon and a rich conceptual toolkit with which to pursue and communicate such
My use of Bals work is, of course, selective, and largely determined by the
nature of my data. Text, fabula, and story three different ways of looking at the
same thing, of differentiating between form, content, and construction provide
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296 Sue-Ann Harding

an entry point. Thus, the reportage selected as data for the study is considered to be
a collection of six (three Russian and three English) primary narrative texts, each
a finite, structured whole composed of language signsin which an agent relates
(tells) a story in a particular medium (Bal 1985/1997, 5). The agent is the narrator and, here, is understood to be the news agency that relates each story through
the narrative texts posted on its website within the time frame of the study. Bal
calls the narrators text primary to indicate the hierarchical connections between
the narrative text as a whole into whichother texts are embedded (2009, 52),
and it was the analysis and division of each primary text that led to the intratextual
model used to structure the analysis of the data.
The fabula is defined as a series of logically and chronologically related events
that are caused or experienced by actors (Bal 2009, 5), and it is made up of elements: events, actors, time and location. Each of the six narrative texts relates the
hostage-taking in Beslan, yet each one differs in its inclusion and omission, or
selective appropriation (Somers and Gibson 1994, 60, Baker 2006, 7177 and
114122) of all possible elements. The Story is defined as the fabulapresented
in a certain manner (Bal 2009, 5); the six narrative texts share common elements,
yet differ in the way in which these events are presented (Bal 1985/1997, 6 emphasis in the original), resulting in very different stories. Elements can be attributed varying degrees of significance,9 amplified through temporal and/or spatial
positioning, the inclusion of greater detail, allotted a greater proportion of the
whole narrative through repetition and reiteration, or interpreted as crises of a
particular magnitude or as turning points in the context of the overall narrative
(Baker 2006, 68).
The way elements are temporally and spatially related to each other is a regular
means of making a story from the fabula. In any given narrative text, the chronological sequence of a fabula, which can normally be deduced from the laws and
norms of everyday logic Bals example is that one cannot arrive in a place before
one has set out to go there (2009, 79) can, and often does, differ from the sequential ordering of events in a story. Bal calls these differences chronological deviations, or anachronies (also used by Genette 1972/1980, 3547), and argues that,
[p]laying with sequential ordering is not just a literary convention; it is also a
means of drawing attention to certain things, to emphasize, to bring about aesthetic or psychological effects, to show various interpretations of an event, to indicate the subtle difference between expectation and realization, and much else
besides. (1985/1997, 82)

The same is true in a news narrative, where the chronological sequence of the
fabula may be thought of as the real events occurring in real time, which the news
reporter relates. The sequential ordering of the reporters story is likely to trace the

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How do I apply narrative theory? 297

chronological sequence of those real time events, particularly when a story is live
or when attempting to report events as they are happening, but it is also likely to
be frequently interrupted in order to relate events that happened prior to those
events. Bal calls such an interruption retroversion (2009, 83).10 External retroversion occurs when the anachronic events related originally took place prior to
the time span of the primary narrative, and internal retroversion occurs when the
anachronic events related took place within the time span of the primary narrative.11 Retroversions are a means of selectively appropriating elements from other
narratives into the primary narrative text, and how far back in time the retroversion reaches can be highly significant. An external retroversion that has a long
distance (Bal 2009, 88) or reach (Genette 1972/1980, 48), such as the recollection of hostilities between nations or ethnic groups that occurred hundreds of
years ago, will place those hostilities and the current news story into a single narrative arc.
All three Russian language primary narrative texts in my study included several different retroversions of varying time spans, all of which contributed to the
construction of very different narratives. RIA-Novosti, for example, includes five
external retroversions with a reach of between twelve hours and ninety-nine years.
These are narratives of previous hostage-takings and acts of political violence in
Russia, including a potted history of war in Chechnya and references to the husband of Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fedorovna (18641918) venerated in a religious ceremony taking place in Krasnoiarsk, Siberia, at the time of the siege in
Beslan who was killed by terrorists12 in 1905. Thus, RIA-Novosti frames the
events in Beslan as yet another terrorist attack on the Russian Federation. Russia
knows about terrorism, suggests the narrator through these connections; we are
not new to the experience, in fact, we were the first.13
In RIA-Novostis English narrative, there are fifteen external retroversions
(with a shorter reach of between six months and twelve years); the story of the
Grand Dukes assassination is omitted and replaced by an additional ten references to Terrorist Attacks in Moscow in 19992004. While the emphasis on Moscow
underscores the official Russian narrative expounded by President Putin in his
televised address to the nation (also included in RIA-Novostis English narrative)
that the attack in Beslan was a challenge against Russia and our nation as a whole,
attacks in the capital could also be perceived negatively by a domestic audience
who might panic and conclude that their government is unable to protect them,
but serve to reinforce for foreign readers the characterisation of Russia as a country on the front line of the war on terror and, hence, legitimize and justify its
counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya.
In contrast to both of these, Caucasian Knot uses four external retroversions
narratives of previous hostage-takings not only in Russia but also the seizure
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298 Sue-Ann Harding

of the Japanese embassy in Peru in December 1996 to connect negotiations

between officials and hostage-takers to the lives saved. By opening up narratives of
terrorism to include others, Caucasian Knot not only undermines the official narratives of Russia as a special victim of terrorism but also shifts the emphasis of the
narrative from victimhood to possible life-saving responses.
In news reporting, there will always be internal retroversions of a sort, with
temporal gaps in the narrative filled in as new information comes to light. RIANovostis first detailed descriptions of the attack on School No.1, for example, are
reported over two hours after the story was first reported and about three and a
half hours after the attack occurred. This is because these anachronic accounts
come from fifteen people who hid in the boiler room during the attack and only
later managed to escape. Media outlets will generally try to minimize the reach of
these internal retroversions as much as possible and be instead the first to break
the news. Arguably, the shorter the reach of the internal retroversion, the more
significant the narrator considers the event or element. Repetitions, that is, when
the sequential ordering of the events in a story is momentarily interrupted from
tracing the chronological course of the fabula in order to re-narrate a prior event,
are also an indication of the degree of significance placed on elements by the narrator, with those considered to be more significant more likely to be repeated more
often. When both the reach of an internal retroversion is very short and the element is repeated, then it can be argued that the narrator considers such elements
to be highly significant. Thus, the manner in which RIA-Novosti reports President
Putins televised speech on the evening of 4 September, with updates every few
minutes and sections of the speech repeated as well as the speech in its entirety
posted twice, indicates that RIA-Novosti considers the speech and its contents to
be highly significant. An abridged translation references to Russias history and
the fall of the Soviet Union are omitted of the presidents speech is posted within ninety minutes of the original publication of the full text, and a full retranslation
is posted on Sunday, 5 September. In stark contrast, Kavkazcenter gives the speech
short shrift, summarizing it in a highly critical single post, while Caucasian Knot
summarizes it with a selection of quotations reproduced without comment. Both
sites omit the speech from their English narratives.
If the reach of an internal retroversion is relatively longer and cannot be accounted for by the lack of available information, then this is likely to indicate that
the narrator does not deem the event to be of great significance. The apparent poisoning of Novaya Gazeta journalist, Anna Politkovskaia, who was on her way to
Beslan by plane, occurred on the evening of Wednesday, 1 September, but was not
reported by RIA-Novosti until 18:56 on Friday 3 September, and even then only
indirectly through the disclaimer of the Karat aviation company. Similarly, the
arrest of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitskii in Moscows
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How do I apply narrative theory? 299

Vnukovo airport took place on the morning of Thursday, 2 September, but was not
reported by RIA-Novosti until 17:45 on Friday, 3 September. His court appearance
on Friday was only reported on Saturday afternoon.14
Other ways in which the story differs from the fabula can be seen in the differences between an actor (an element) and a character (or similarly, the differences
between a place and a space), that is, the effect that is created when the narrator
provides an actor (or a place) with distinctive characteristics (Bal 2009).15 Leonid
Roshal, one of three people with whom the hostage-takers demand to meet, is
an actor common to all three Russian primary narrative texts. On 1 September,
Caucasian Knot describes him as the well-known paediatrician, who in 2002
went to the hostages in the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, and reports his arrival at
operation headquarters at Beslan later that day. RIA-Novosti describes Dr Roshal
as the well-known paediatrician who,
in October 2002 took part in the release of the hostages seized by boeviki in the
building of the Dubrovka theatre centre. The doctor conducted negotiations with
the terrorists about the release of children, and about the relaying of food, water
and medicines to the hostages.16

RIA-Novosti follows his movements throughout the day, beginning with an interview in Moscow as he declares his readiness to fly to Beslan, his flight to Beslan,
and his arrival and presence in the operation headquarters. The interview and
his arrival are also included in the RIA-Novosti English narrative (he is missing
altogether from the Kavkazcenter and Caucasian Knot English narratives), where
Roshals role in the Dubrovka theatre hostage crisis is described in glowing terms,
using language that almost depicts [t]he selfless physician as a compassionate,
even Christ-like figure. Compare this excerpt from the English narrative with the
back translation above. Notable differences in the text are underlined.
Leonid Roshal appeared in the tragic limelight when he volunteered to negotiate
in the Dubrovka Theatre plight in Moscow as terrorists took a full house hostage
during a sensational musical in autumn 2002. At the risk of his own life, he was
attending to the sick and interceded for the captives.17

Again in contrast, Kavkazcenter simply describes Roshal as a participant in the

negotiations at Nord-Ost. Rather than tracking his movements throughout the
day, at 20:06, just a few minutes before RIA-Novosti reports his arrival in Beslan,
Kavkazcenter reports Valerii Andreev, head of the FSB [Federal Security Services]
in North Ossetia, as saying that at present, measures are being taken to search for
Doctor Leonid Roshal in order to bring him to Beslan and continue the negotiating process, to which Kavkazcenter adds that it is not quite clear why the FSB
is stating that it is looking for Doctor Roshal when it is well known that Roshal

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300 Sue-Ann Harding

works for (sostoit v shtate) the FSB. Thus, one actor, Leonid Roshal, is characterised in three different ways: as doctor, hero, and secret police, and in translation he
is either enhanced or eliminated.
Text, fabula, story, narrator, elements, anachronies, retroversions, actors, characters, place and space are all examples of narratological concepts that enable clear
and insightful investigation, analysis and discussion of narratives, be they textually
bound or constructed across a variety of verbal and non-verbal texts. There are, of
course, others. Baldo (2008) explores focalization, for example, Hermans has explored notions of voice (1996) and irony (2007), and metaphor has also attracted
attention from Translation Studies scholar (see St Andr 2010). A continued exploration of the field would yield further useful terms and concepts.
3.3 An intra-textual model for the analysis of text
Engaging with these terms from narratology led directly to the construction of
what I call an intra-textual model of analysis that separates out the types of texts
embedded within each primary narrative text. The model differentiates between
narrative and non-narrative material, and then further differentiates the narrative
material according to time and place (see Figure 2). This model, which I believe
could be used for other sets of comparable data, was extremely useful for comparing and contrasting my material in both Russian and English taken from the three

Primary narrative

Nonnarrative texts

Narrative texts



Located beyond
Beslan school no.1

Figure 2. An intratextual model for analysis

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Located in or near
Beslan school no.1
(core narrative)

How do I apply narrative theory? 301

different websites and, ultimately, I used it as the entire structural basis for my
In the same way that single, integral narrative texts can include non-narrative
comments such as description or argument, each primary narrative text includes
non-narrative material such as official statements and condemnations, letters
of appeal, commentaries and opinion pieces.18 Bal argues that identifying such
passages often helps to assess the ideological or aesthetic thrust of a narrative
(2009, 9) because it is often in the non-narrative comments that ideological statements are made (2009, 31). This is not to say, Bal acknowledges,
that the rest of the narrative is innocent of ideology, on the contrary. The reason
for examining these alternations is precisely to measure the difference between
the texts overt ideology, as stated in such comments, and its more hidden or naturalized ideology, as embodied in the narrative representations. (ibid.)

This is true of the primary narrative texts in my study, where non-narrative comments are often quite explicit expressions of various opinions and allegations,
which are embodied, to differing degrees, in the remaining narrative material.
This narrative material can then be categorised as either synchronal (occurring
within the same time frame as the primary narrative text) or anachronic (occurring outside of the time frame of the primary narrative text). While all three news
agencies consistently reported events in Beslan as they were unfolding, they also
included narrative texts relating events that happened before the attack on Beslan,
as discussed above.
Finally, all the synchronal narrative material within each primary narrative
text is further categorised according to spatial position, that is, narratives that
relate events occurring beyond Beslans School No. 1, and narratives that relate
events occurring near or in Beslans School No.1. The school in Beslan quickly
becomes the site of events that constitute what might be thought of as the core narrative, for without it, without those events, there would be no other material and
no narrative texts. Although access to this site is severely restricted, its boundaries
are porous; hostages escape, are released, are sent to the boundary with messages
to be delivered across the line, telephone connections are made, Ruslan Aushev
(former president of Ingushetia) walks in and out again. Towards the end of the
siege this boundary seems to collapse, with Russian special forces moving into the
school, hostages fleeing into nearby apartment blocks or sped off in cars to various hospitals, and hostage-takers escaping into nearby buildings and across the
railway lines into other parts of the town. One of the most surprising results of the
study was that, despite all this movement and all the uncertainty about what was
happening and why, only a very small proportion of text (in all six narratives) is
devoted to relating this core narrative.

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302 Sue-Ann Harding

3.4 Narrators and temporary narrators

A further insight gained from drawing on narratology was the studys focus on
narrators little discussed in the literature on social narrativity19 and temporary narrators, that is, actors to whom the function of narrating is temporarily
transferred, as in the case of direct speech (Bal 2009) or, in this case, in the inclusion of texts penned by commentators and/or lifted from other media. All three
narrators (news agencies) enlist several different temporary narrators government officials, other media, experts, commentators, translators, correspondents,
and eyewitnesses20 to contribute to the construction of their primary narrative texts, and the distinct narratives constructed can partly be accounted for by
identifying to whom each narrator temporarily passes the function of narrating
and the manner in which this is done. Findings of particular interest included the
overwhelming dominance of official temporary narrators in RIA-Novostis Russian
and English narratives, the framing effect of enlisting certain experts, the diminishing of rhetorical power through awkward translations, and the manipulation of
(particular) eyewitness narratives to conform to larger, politically expedient narratives, usually through the use of indirect speech, the late temporal positioning of
eyewitness narratives within the primary narrative texts and selective cutting and
pasting from other online media.
It was also interesting to find that, of the three websites, Caucasian Knot included the greatest number of eyewitnesses functioning as temporary narrators,
more of whom are named and quoted directly and, in a marked departure from
the other two sites, are included already on the first day of the siege. Caucasian
Knot also includes a wider selection of official narrators, including, significantly,
high ranking officials from the Chechen-Ichkerian government (in exile), regarded as terrorists by the Russian government and so, of course, absent from RIANovostis narrative. President Aslan Maskhadov makes a statement elaborating a
narrative of legitimate struggle that rejects illegitimate means, and Presidential
Representative Akhmed Zakaev reiterates Maskhadovs willingness to travel to
Beslan at great personal risk he was a wanted man and in hiding at the time
to negotiate with the hostage-takers, an offer repeated by Ilias Akhmadov, Foreign
Affairs minister, who speaks insightfully at length about the effects of years of
war on Chechnyas people, the foolishness of the hostage-takers, and strategies
for peaceful, political negotiations between Russia and Chechnya. Together with
the personal narratives of eyewitnesses, these temporary narrators contribute to a
primary narrative text that is a distinct, more nuanced, more complex, alternative
to official narratives. What is also interesting is that none of these are included in
Caucasian Knots English primary narrative text.

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How do I apply narrative theory? 303

Thus, applying socio-narrative theory to data of this kind brings to the fore
questions such as who may narrate and who may not? How do narrators control
or re-narrate their temporary narrators? Which potential narrators may choose
not to narrate on specific occasions, and what are the implications of this silence?
If resources are limited, as is most likely the case with independent sites such as
Kavkazcenter and Caucasian Knot, how can translation most effectively give international voice to those customarily marginalized by more powerful narrators?
Because of the sociological assumptions of socio-narrative theory, such questions
are essentially about authority and power and concern issues of conflict, dominance, resistance, coercion and subversion and the power and abilities of individuals and societal groups to elaborate and circulate their narratives.
4. Conclusions and further possibilities
As mentioned above, socio-narrative theory has been used in translation and interpreting studies to analyse and account for both micro and macro translational
choices and strategies with regard to literature, cultural theory, political propaganda, personal and political negotiations in the development of alter-globalisation
activist networks, news media, international publishing practices, Bible translation, theatre translation, conflict mediation and website localization. My own research interests include the wealth of documentation related to Beslan that has
been collected by grass-roots organisations of people who lost loved ones in the
siege, including the transcripts of the trial of Nurpashi Kulaev, the only hostagetaker at Beslan to be apprehended. Socio-narrative analyses of these materials
seem a fruitful means of exploring notions of security, terrorism, counter-terrorism, ethnic conflict and human rights as narrated by and enacted in the Russian
government and judicial system.
The intra-textual model of analysis suggested here proved a very useful means
of comparing and contrasting primary narrative texts (Russian and English/translated) and quickly revealed several areas of interest for investigation, such as the
surprisingly small proportion of RIA-Novostis texts devoted to the core narrative
and the large amount of non-narrative comment. This model, or adaptations of it,
could readily be applied to other comparable sets of data; international news and
news translations will always provide rich data for investigating ways in which violent political conflicts are narrated by, and to, key players. The Israeli military campaign codenamed Operation Cast Lead launched against Gaza in December 2008,
for example, was extensively reported in many languages throughout the world,
yet of the vast amounts of column space, radio airtime and television broadcasts
devoted to the fighting during the campaign, how much related events occurring
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304 Sue-Ann Harding

within Gaza and beyond Gaza (and what was the spatial location of those events),
what external retroversions were included, how much of the material was nonnarrative material (official statements, commentary and analysis) and what societal, theoretical, and meta-narratives were used to frame the events unfolding
within Gaza? Who were the narrators and temporary narrators and how were temporary narrators re-narrated and temporally (and spatially) positioned? How do
these compare across languages and what role does translation play in reconfiguring and circulating these narratives?
How to apply socio-narrative theory to Translation Studies? Its application is
limited, I think, only by ones own imagination and the availability of data. It is
hoped that the literature discussed in this article, along with the revised typology,
insights gained from combining narratological and sociological approaches, the
intratextual model of analysis and the focus on narrators and temporary narrators,
will be useful and valuable for researchers asking how to apply socio-narrative
theory in Translation Studies.

1. The literature, of course, is vast. For starting references, see Somers and Gibson (1994, 80 n5),
and for an overview of more recent developments and sources see also Herman et al (2007).
2. Hermans suggests narrativity as one of three possible approaches the others are modern
hermeneutics and Niklas Luhmanns concept of second-order observation that could create
within the discourse about translation a certain self-critical distance (2002, 20) that he sees as
lacking in the discipline, but takes the suggestion no further than a brief, inaugural discussion
of an essay by Mieke Bal (1993).
3. These draw on Bruner (1991) and are temporality, relationality, causal emplotment, selective
appropriation, particularity, genericness, normativeness (canonicity and breach) and narrative
4. In his own work, Said also repeatedly foregrounds the crucial role of narrative (Al-Herthani
2009). See, for example, Said (1984).
5. Baker also discusses the organization, its translation policies and practices, and other references to it in the media (2006, 735, 10809, 177; 2010b).
6. See Baker (2006) for her discussion of particularity as a feature of narrative.
7. This is the understanding of framing followed by Baker (2006, 105140) and drawn from
literature on social movements. While Baker discusses several framing strategies (temporal and
spatial framing, selective appropriation, labelling, and positioning of participants), she does not
specifically discuss the embedding of particular narratives into more general narratives as a
framing strategy, although arguably, it could easily be considered as such. Conversely, Abbott
discusses at some length the use of framing narratives from a narratological perspective

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How do I apply narrative theory? 305

(2008, 2830), yet he is careful to differentiate this from Goffmans frame theory (1974/1986).
Again, I would argue that, from a socio-narrative perspective, these framing narratives could
easily be conceptualised through the lens of frame theory.
8. Conversely, a meta-narrative might also be particularised by linking it specifically to
concrete characters and locations, often infusing them with the power of the meta-narrative.
Examples might be sacred sites in Australian Aboriginal cultures, sites of historic battlefields,
and sites of religious significance or pilgrimage. Conflict over the application of different metanarratives to such sites is often a primary source of (armed) conflict over geographical space.
9. Baker calls this weighting (2006, 68), and she discusses it in the context of causal emplotment, one of her features of narrativity. These, along with Bruners (1991), could all be understood as aspects of Bals story.
10. Bal avoids the more common terms flash-back and flash-forward because of their vagueness and psychological connotations (2009, 83). Other terms used in narratology are analepsis and prolepsis respectively (Abbott 2008, Genette 1972/1980, 40).
11. A third type, mixed, refers to a retroversion that returns to events which begin prior to the
primary narrative, but end within the time frame of the primary narrative. The duration of the
anachronic events may be called the anachronys extent (Genette 1972/1980: 48) or its span
(2009, 9191).
12. All translation are my own unless otherwise specified.
13. The wave of terrorist attacks carried out in Russia by the terrorists, or boeviki, of the Social
Revolutionary Party in the early twentieth century, of which Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich
was a victim, are now widely acknowledged to be the first example of sustained, organised terrorism in the modern period (Geifman 1993).
14. See Another Journalist Detained at Moscow Airport, (http://cpj.org/2004/09/anotherjournalist-detained-at-moscow-airport.php, 5 March 2011) and Prominent Russian Journalist
Sentenced to Prison for Hooliganism, (http://cpj.org/2004/09/prominent-russian-journalistsentenced-to-prison-f.php, 5 March 2011) from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
15. In her study of live radio broadcasts of sports events, Ryan (1993) indentifies the construction of characters as one of three basic operations crucial to constructing a narrative from events
as those events are occurring.
16. , RIA-Novosti, 1 September 2004,
12:44. http://ria.ru/incidents/20040901/669256.html (accessed 11 January 2012).
17. Famous Dr Roshal in North Ossetia to Mediate for Hostage Kids, RIA-Novosti, 1 September
2004, 20:55. http://en.rian.ru/onlinenews/20040901/39768314.html (accessed 11 January 2012).
18. The distinction between non-narrative and narrative material is a pragmatic one based on
definitions of narrative that stress the (causal) relation of events, and is used here to acknowledge the qualitative differences between material that relates events and material that merely
describes or comments upon those events. Of course, all material is ultimately understood
through narrative configuration, but I do not think it helpful if differences are obscured by considering everything to be narrative.

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306 Sue-Ann Harding

19. Bruner acknowledges, but does not explore in any depth, the power of great storytellers to
either relate a narrative so well as to create the illusion that their story needs no interpretation,
or alternatively, to lead people to see human happenings in a fresh wayin a way they had
never before noticed or even dreamed (1991, 12). Somers and Gibson (1994), Somers (1997),
and Baker (2006) discuss the concept of narrator only indirectly, in their considerations of personal (or ontological) and public narratives and the construction of narratives by social actors,
including individuals and social institutions.
20. These categories of temporary narrators are, like any category adopted for the purpose of
analysis, porous and in flux rather than fixed. Correspondents may also narrate as eyewitnesses,
and a government official may also be a relative of a hostage, as in the case of Taimuraz Mamsurov,
chair of the North Ossetian parliament, whose two children were among the hostages.

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Authors address
Sue-Ann Harding
Translation and Interpreting Institute
Hamad bin Khalifa University
Qatar Foundation
PO Box 5828
Doha, Qatar

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