The test of each story is the sort of person it shapes. The version of narrative theory І have chosen to adopt in my research assumes that no one stands outside all narratives and that narrative constitutes reality rather than merely representing it. This might suggest that there can be no criteria for assessing individual narratives. But our embeddedness in narratives clearly cannot preclude our ability to reason about individual narratives.
If it did, we would have no basis for establishing communal identity, given that narrative theory also stresses that “narratives, along with the values they prescribe… form the basis of communities large and small, and thereby define who we are”. Walter Fisher’s influential narrative paradigm helps to explain why our embeddedness in narratives does not mean that one story is as good as another or that we passively internalize rather than actively choose and elaborate the narratives we subscribe to.
Fisher argues against the conceptualization of human beings as simply rational and instead suggests that people are essentially storytellers who “creatively read and evaluate the texts of life and literature”. As both storytellers and audience, we make decisions on the basis of good reasons, but what we consider good reasons is determined by our history, culture, experience of the world, and, ultimately, the stories we come to believe about the world in which we live. Two points are worth highlighting here.
First, within this framework there is still а rational basis for assessing the stories that shape our understanding of the world, but rationality in Fisher’s model is redefined as “narrative rationality”. Fisher writes that narrative rationality “is determined by the nature of persons as narrative beings-their inherent awareness of narrative probability, what constitutes а coherent story, and their constant habit of testing narrative fidelity, whether the stories they experience ring true with the stories they know to be true in their lives”.
І discuss the two criteria of coherence and fidelity in more detail below and attempt to apply them to translation in the final section of this article. Second, the notion of “good reasons” suggests that assessing narratives in order to position ourselves in relation to them does not just depend on how well they “fit” with our experience of the world in factual terms. Good here has а moral import as well, as Fisher indicates: All forms of human communication function to influence the hearts and minds of others-their beliefs, values, attitudes, and/or actions.
The concept of good reasons coincides with the assumption that human beings are as much valuing as they are reasoning beings, the fact is that values may serve as reasons and what we usually call reasons are value-laden. (1997:314) However, Fisher points out that we need specific guidance in the form of features that narratives must display (rather than merely the effects they may have) in order to decide “whether or not they are deserving of our adherence” (1997:315). This is what coherence and fidelity, the two basic principles that define narrative rationality and that embody the concept of good reasons in Fishers paradigm, allow us to do.
А narrative may be “tested” in relation to three types of coherence: structural or argumentative; material; and characterological. Structural coherence relates to internal consistency whether or not the narrative reveals contradictions within itself. Material coherence is а question of how а narrative relates to other narratives that cover the same issue and that we are familiar with. More specifically, а narrative can be tested with respect to the “facts” it might downplay or ignore the counterarguments it chooses not to engage with, and so forth.
Characterological coherence assumes that the reliability of any narrative depends very largely on the credibility of its main characters as well as the characters narrating it. If the decisions and actions associated with а character change significantly “in strange ways” (Fisher 1997:316) or contradict each other, we inevitably question the credibility of the character and hence the narrative in question, Fisher indicates that, “Coherence in life and literature requires that characters behave characteristically.
Without this kind of predictability, there is no trust, no rational order, no community” (1997:316) Hence, once we decide that а given person is trustworthy, honorable, courageous, and so on, we are prepared to “overlook and forgive many things: factual errors if not too dramatic, lapses m reasoning, and occasional discrepancies. In addition to testing for coherence, we also test narratives for fidelity, Here, the focus is on assessing (а) the elements of а narrative that may be regarded as its reasons and (b) the values that the narrative promotes.
For Fisher good reasons are “those elements that provide warrants for accepting or adhering to the advice fostered by any form of communication that can be considered rhetorical. Fisher stresses, however, that the concept of good reasons “does not imply that every element of rhetorical transaction that warrants а belief, attitude, or action that any ‘good reason’-is as good as any other.
It only signifies that whatever is taken as а basis for adopting а rhetorical message is inextricably bound to а value-to а conception of the good. Assessing the values explicitly or implicitly promoted by а narrative means asking what effects adhering to it would have on the world, on our ability to maintain our sense of self respect, and on our relationship to others.
As Fisher argues, we ultimately have to ask “even if а prima facie case has been made or а burden of proof has been established, are the values fostered by the story those that would constitute an ideal basis for human conduct? ” (1997:317) It is this ability to judge narratives on the basis of their moral implications and the values they promote that ultimately guides human behavior and allows communities to gather around а given narrative or set of narratives. Fisher’s narrative paradigm has two principal strengths in the current context.
First, because it privileges moral values, it explains why activist communities can form across boundaries of nation, color, gender, profession, and almost any other division one can think of, without any motivation of personal gain-indeed, often at great personal risk to individual members of the community. Second, the narrative paradigm goes beyond explaining why communities emerge and unite around narratives, It specifically anchors this process in the notions of narrative rationality and good reasons, which imply considerable agency on the part of individuals and communities.
As storytellers we do more than “choose” from prevalent narratives in our own societies If we judge the moral consequences of these narratives negatively, we can look elsewhere for “better” narratives or even elaborate narratives of our own. This is precisely what communities of activists, including those forming within the professional world of translation, attempt to do-they organize and select narratives on the basis of “good reasons”, looking beyond the dominant narratives of their cultures, often selecting counter narratives or elaborating new ones.
It is worth pointing out that much of the impetus for narrative research in general, including Fisher’s work, comes from а belief among theorists working in this area that the unexamined assumptions of narratives “conceal patterns of domination and submission, which exclude the experience of large sectors of society while legitimating and promoting those of the political, economic, and cultural elite.
There is also general agreement in the literature that narrative both reproduces the existing power structures and provides а means of contesting them: If stories can be constructed to wall off the senses to the dilemmas and contradictions of social life, perhaps they also can be presented in ways that open up the mind to creative possibilities developed in ways that provoke intellectual struggle, the resolution of contradiction, and the creation of а more workable human order.
More specifically, narrative theorists acknowledge that undermining existing patterns of domination cannot be achieved with concrete forms of activism alone (such as demonstrations, sit-ins, and civil disobedience) but must involve а direct challenge to the stories that sustain these patterns. As language mediators, translators and interpreters are uniquely placed to initiate this type of discursive intervention at а global level.
The narrative paradigm, then, and narrative theory more generally offer а framework that” generates а sense of what is good as well as what is strictly logical in the stories that people might adopt, explaining how individuals and communities can exercise sufficient agency to imagine that “another world is possible”, to use the well known slogan of the World Social Forum, serviced by the translators and interpreters in Babels. І suggest we might rewrite this motto in the present context as “another narrative is possible”.