Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account

Translation and Conflict: A Narrative Account

 By Mona Baker

Reviewed by El-Mehdi Adlany

Translation and conflict: a narrative account, by Mona Baker. New York: Routledge, 2006.

ISBN:0-415-38396-X. Price £23.74

  • Introduction

Translation and Conflict” is an interesting book that explores different aspects of narrative theory and depicts its implication in the work of translators and interpreters. It mainly draws on Somers and Gibson model of narrative theory as well as on Bruner’s. The main thread of the book is the political import of this theory; however, Baker managed to present a comprehensive analysis that not only manifests the political import of the theory but also other fields such as science and literature, which makes the book a compelling and comprehensive account of narrative theory. Baker shows the ‘sensitive’ role of translators in either resisting or circulating narratives. Exhibiting a plethora of factual instances, Baker shows to what extent translators may contribute in creating conflicts in the political arena. The book shows that most of the narratives circulated by media (internet, radio, TV … etc.) lack objectivity and are often driven by political intents.

The book comprises of seven chapters, the first five of which are devoted to defining and exploring the features of narrativity while the last two one relate narrativity with translation clearly.

  • Chapter II: Introducing narrative theory

In this chapter, Baker first discusses the status and effects of narrativity by, drawing on Social and communication theory and definitions elaborated by Labov, Hyden White and Somer, making a distinction between the literary and linguistic approaches to narrative the approach adopted in her book, narrativity in Baker’s concern primarily the status of narrative as an ‘optional’ mode of communication or a ‘meta-code’. Baker explains that narrative is independent of genre; it includes even scientific reports and theories. Narrative exists even in the ‘apparently’ objective sciences. She provides an interesting example of statistical census data provided by Palestine and Israel, in which each party tried to legitimize their version of ‘reality’. Scientific narratives, Baker explains, serves for the purposes of legitimizing and justifying actions and positions, providing an excellent example of a scientific report, published in “The Observer” magazine, that attempts to justify that Judaism can only be inherited. She cleverly inserted a quote that says ‘science is just politics in a lab coat’. Through pertinent and cleverly chosen examples, Baker points out a key point in this chapter, the normalizing effect of narratives. It, Baker explains, ‘normalizes the account it projects’ and that narratives become normalized over time. This is a depicted in an example, among many others, of the scientist George Cuvier, who tries to explain the superiority of the white race in ironically scientific way. She provides other examples such as the association of barbarous narratives with security, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism. Narratives become the fabric of everyday life when they are normalized. Baker exhibits clearly the implications of this effect in translation by stating that translation has a key role in spreading and normalizing narratives. Translators then are burdened by an ethical responsibility: to circulate or to resist narratives, that’s the question. Baker further discusses that the choice of what to categorize and how to categorize it depends primarily on ‘our narrative location’. Baker raises an interesting point, the relationship between narrative and reality, by stating that ‘knowledge is never point-of-viewless’ and that ‘all vision is perspectival’; there different versions of truth. Baker defines narratives as the stories we tell about our lives, outlining that the central concern of these stories is ‘how narrative operates as an instrument of mind in the construction of reality’. Baker also discusses the political import of narratives,: individuals and communities rely on past narratives to ‘highlight’ present situation or sometimes to justify certain actions and positions. She pinpointed a clear example of the Jews who perpetually recount the story of holocaust to gain sympathy and support.  

  • Chapter III: A typology of narrative

In this chapter, drawing on the model of Somers and Gibson Baker discusses the four types of narrative: ontological narratives, public narratives, conceptual (disciplinary) narratives and meta-narratives. She defines ontological narratives as ‘personal stories that we tell ourselves about our place in the world and our own personal history’; they define who we are. Baker explains that ontological narratives depend primarily on the collective narratives which shape the personal stories of individuals. Baker also pinpoints that for shared narratives to gain currency, ‘polyvocality of numerous personal stories is required’. To relate ontological narrative to translation, Baker shows that translating these [narratives] is challenging and might have some psychological toll on interpreters, providing the example of an interpreter who was traumatized because of ‘child abuse’ while doing her job. In contrast to ontological narratives, public narratives are those ‘stories’ that are elaborated and circulated by larger institutions such as governments and religious institutions. Baker provides some good examples to make this clearer, one of which is the competing narratives about the war on Iraq and the narrative stories about ‘American social mobility’. These can change within years; to elucidate this, Baker mentioned the example of Nilson Mandella, who was considered as terrorist in the 1960’s then a hero in the 1990’s. Conceptual narratives are defined as the ‘product of inquiry’ or the ‘representations elaborated by researchers’, and every disciplines has its own set of conceptual narratives. Baker made this clearer by pointing out abundance of examples, among of which Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mill’s history of British India in which he constructs a negative image of Indians. In translation of such narratives, translators can choose between promoting or contesting them. Meta narratives are narratives in which we are embedded as contemporary actors in history: progress, decadence, enlightenment, etc.  

  • Chapter IV: Understanding how narratives work I

In this chapter, Baker explains how narratives function in constructing the world for us. There are four features discussed in the fourth chapter and are, respectively, temporality, relationality, causal emplotment and selective appropriation.

The first feature, temporality, has to do with order of events; Baker explains that ‘narrative is always placed in some sequence, and that order in which they are placed carries meaning. Baker provided a clear example that better explains this feature: two diary entries about a doctor who warned people about contamination, those consist of the same information but only the order of events changed; two broadly different interpretations were produced: an irresponsible doctor who spread panic or a responsible one who saved lives. Thus, chronological order is a function of narrative. Another excellent example was given, “Big Bad World” cartoon, which shows that ‘spatial order tells a story’: FREEDOM JUSTICE HOPE TERRORIM; it means since the first three are violated, terrorism takes place; reversing it to FREEDOM JUSTICE HOPE TERRORIM  leads us to conclude that in order to regain the first three is via fighting terrorism. Baker cleverly presents abundance of examples which depict that feature, whose definition might seem unfathomable at the beginning. Baker explains that ‘narratives always project a chronological end, a purpose, a forecast, an aspiration’.

The next discussed aspect is relationality. Baker indicates that rationality ‘means that as human beings we cannot make sense of events without constituting them as a narrative’. This feature makes the importation of elements of a narrative to another very problematic. Baker exemplifies this through the example of the Aristotelian and Newtonian theories which try to explain the same phenomena but are in some ways incompatible. Baker presented an interesting and detailed example, the use of “shaheed” (martyr), which was translated as “victims”. Relationality has an import in translation in the sense that translators should not opt for semantic translation which might trigger negative connotations or reactions.

Causal emplotment, as Baker explains, is what ‘gives significance to independent instances and overrides their chronological order’. Baker further clarifies this feature by indicating that it allows us to weight and explain events. Interestingly, Baker depicts this in two clear examples: 1. Palestinian suicide bombing Vs Palestinian terror attacks 2. Victims of 9/11 vs Tens of thousands of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. Baker asserts that it has a direct implication in translation in the sense that translators are in position that allows them to readjust the weight of elements in a narrative and produce a new narrative with another causal emplotment.

Selective appropriation is another key feature of narrativity. Drawing on Somers and Gibson, Baker indicates that in an experience a number of elements and events are evaluated, some are privileged and others excluded. This explains why there are different versions of truth. This makes sense since each party in a conflict derives a truth from a different angle then the picture may never be complete, which results often in competing narratives.

  • Chapter V: Understanding how narratives work: Features of Narrativity II

In this Chapter, Baker continues to examine other features of narrativity: particularity, genericness, normativeness/conivity and breach and narrative accrual; this time she draws heavily on Bruner’s.  

Baker argues that particularity means that there is a ‘masterplot’ common among a variety of narratives even if they differed in some details. Baker further indicates that there are ‘skeletal storylines’ (p.78) that make it easier to fill the blank in any incomplete narrative, folktales and love stories, for instance. Baker highlights a very interesting point, the resonance of recurrent storylines, that when the narratives or stories recounted, they are very likely to be credible. Baker exemplifies by the success of Republican Party because they hit on the sensitive cord of Americans: ‘redemptive self’ (p.82).  Another interesting point is the subverting familiar storylines which Baker discusses through an amusing and revealing example of the movie, Shrek and Shrek 2, in which a moral message was conveyed; this subversion is also used to pass moral messages in different contexts.

The next feature is genericness. As Baker explains, always drawing on Bruner’s, “genres are recognizable kinds of narrative” (p.85) such as comedy, tragedy, legal contracts, academic articles … etc. This genericness provides the individual of a model to follow and sets out a number of expectations. Baker discusses genre specific signaling devices or ‘contextualization cues’ (p.86), which can be lexical, syntactic or structural. Baker further discusses parodying and subverting genres, in which genres conventions may be used to undermine or subvert a dominant narrative or produce a typical one. What Baker means by the policing of genres is that there are some genres which are those genres which are “highly controlled” (p.95) such as translation. Baker explains the generic shifts in translation concern those source texts that were translated as are without paying attention to generic conventions such as the difference between endings of love stories in American literature and Japanese culture. Once again, Baker mention other features among of which, normativeness which means that a breach of conventions makes a narrative worth telling. Baker demonstrates through the example of  Palestinian who expresses his shock about his destroyed home, the translation of what he said was changed in order to produce the same effect of his words by evoking the image of Vietnam war to depict the “gravity” of the experience ( p.99). Narrative accrual, in Baker’s words, “outcome of repeated exposure to a set of related narratives, ultimately leading to the shaping of a culture, tradition or history” (p.101).

  • Chapter VI: Framing narratives in translation.

In this Chapter, Baker considers framing one of the ways by which translators “accentuate, undermine or modify aspects of the narrative encoded in the source text. Drawing on Goffman, Baker defines framing as “an active strategy that implies agency and by means of which we consciously participate in the construction of reality” (p. 105). This framing serves for the purpose of spreading different versions of reality of the same set of events, to exemplify this, Baker presented the example of acts of violence which are viewed as “war”, civil war”, “terrorist acts” … etc. Baker explains the notion of frame space by drawing on Goffman, “a contribution is deemed acceptable when it stays within the frame space allocated to the speaker or writer and unacceptable when out falls outside that space” (p.110) This has direct implication in translation and interpreting in the sense that translators have to act within the allowed frame space. However, Baker argues that translators may undermine this through temporal and spatial framing; in other words, as Baker précises, translators may project the narrative of the source text onto another totally different temporal and spatial context, and through this the narrative viewpoint is either accentuated or suppressed. Another aspect of framing is selective appropriation; Baker uses once more the example of MEMRI translations that rely heavily on this notion in promoting narratives. Baker demonstrates that this notion is based on omission and addition.  Selective appropriation in literature is manifested through censorship in which usually translators omit any sexual element that might offend the target culture. In media, selective appropriation is used to manipulate truths; Baker provides the example of an interview of Bin Laden, in which the message was altered claiming he has mass destruction weapons while he does not. Another remarkable way of framing is labeling. Baker argues that labeling is manifested in the use of euphemism in order to point to an element of a narrative in a way that softens it and makes it less provocative or offending, which heavily used in the political arena. Another key feature is the repositioning of participants. Baker argues that this can be performed in translation through ‘linguistic management’ (p.132). Baker provides other subtler ways such as repositioning in paratextual commentary (introduction, glossaries, footnotes …) in which translators position themselves or other participants, as well as repositioning within the text or utterance.

  • Chapter VII: Assessing narratives

In this chapter, the book gains ample momentum since it comes to an important issue: assessment of narratives. Drawing on Fisher’s paradigm, Baker argues that our decisions are dependent on narratives and good reasons (p. 142) rather than rationality. Baker explains the features we should look for to assess the quality of a narrative so we act upon it. Two key features of this assessment are coherence which, Baker explains, “concerns the internal consistency and integrity of a narrative” (p.143); in other words, it’s the way the elements or participants are woven into the fabric of narrative. Baker distinguishes between three yardsticks: a. structural (argumentative coherence) which simply means that the narrative should be consistent and do not contradict with itself b. material coherence which revolves around relating a narrative to other narratives on the same issue in order to find out what facts were excluded or simply overlooked. This very well asserts the earlier points made by Baker about the existence of different realities c. characterological coherence is about the credibility of characters involved in a narrative whether actors, narrators … and their actions which should not be contradicting with their values in order to consider such narrative a reliable one. Baker discusses another yardstick of assessment, fidelity which is assessed by the logic of good reasons (comprising of 5 components, see page 152) and logic of good reasons (fact, relevance, consequence, consistency and values). The last point Baker discusses, drawing on principles to asses narratives providing two key examples of MLA journal and Translators without Borders. Baker concludes her book by acknowledging the limitation of Fisher’s model.

  • Verdict

The book’s content is very well structured with a clear overview of its chapters. Even though I was exposed to some concepts for the first time and seemed to me a little bit challenging to digest, I found that the abundance of examples embedded with each definition clarify the concepts; the examples were very interesting and amusing (such as example of Rumsfeld as a poet), historical facts, illustrated examples (that of freedom/hope/security/terrorism). It was an exploration of different aspects of history since Baker’s examples were taken from ancient history as well as from our present day, which gives the impression of how ‘comprehensive’ the analysis is. It is quite unique the way in which sophistication and simplicity are woven into the fabric of this book, layout and content.

I found this book an excellent account on working our way to understanding the twisted paths of realties and assessing what media feeds us on a daily basis and such call to use our critical thinking. It’s not only relevant for translators but also for people who want to have a clear idea about the complexity of realties. One general remark about this book is that it has abundance of facts; the author managed successfully to lay down all facts in a more neutral way, examples were very detailed and clarified. Interestingly, there was little to no room for gratuitous claims because it was well documented, which qualifies this book as scientific par excellence. This book is very enlightening in the sense that it directs one’s attention to the manipulation of reality that goes unnoticed most of the time, especially that notion of order of events, subtle way of producing different realities. The groundbreaking analysis provided by Baker is an eye-opener. While writing this review, a lot of things I could not help but mention them because of their import; for this reason, I highly recommend reading this book because it surely is able to change one’s perception to how we perceive reality. In sum, this is a must-read book even by general public.





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