Narratological Cartography

Ekaterina Yu. Sokrouta (Moscow)

Narratological Cartography

Abstract: This article deals with the mapping out of narrative theories within the context of international narratological research. According to some classifications, there are more than twenty-five varieties of narratology in international mainstream research. Such diversity makes the common understanding of concepts and terminology difficult to achieve and poses difficulties with the translation of texts employing narratological terms from one language to another. Taking as examples the concepts of event and character in Russian and other languages, the author demonstrates how divergences of terminology can lead to misunderstandings in scientific debate. In order to remedy these difficulties, she thus puts forth the idea of an online international comparative dictionary of narratological terms and concepts ​​employed in Russian, French, German and Anglo-American narratologies.

Keywords: comparative narratology, multilingual narratological dictionary, event, character

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In this essay I will examine the idea of an international comparative dictionary that would incorporate widely acknowledged narratological terms and concepts in different languages. My point of departure is simple: it must be conceded that contemporary narratology is not a single monolithic scientific field, but a diverse complex of disciplines, the number and content of which vary both as to the approaches currently available and the national traditions within which these approaches are practiced. We can speak here of French narratology, German narratology, Russian narratology, etc. We might also think of the more than twenty-five different narratologies in the Anglo-American tradition identified a number of years ago by Ansgar Nünning.

What we usually have in mind when we talk about narratology is a number of narratological languages. Does this mean that narratologists from different schools are unable to understand one other? To answer this question, we begin by taking a closer look at present-day narratological topics. It is widely agreed that the clarification of terms and the definition of boundaries between hypotheses are closely related to the analysis of narratives. However, there are numerous differences in our ways of understanding narratological categories, even when the words used to designate them are the same.

Let us take, for example, the word for character in Russian, which does not have the same meaning as character in English. In Russian характер (character) refers to the inner nature, the moral habits of a person, not to an actor in the story. The Russian term contrasts with the French word personnage even more. This is only one example among many of the obstacles faced by the user and the translator of narratological terminology.

The fundamental narratological category of event, to take another example, has been the subject of a bewildering variety of definitions. Here is Peter Hühn’s definition from his article in the Handbook of Narratology:

The term ‘event’ refers to a change of state as one of the constitutive features of narrativity. We can distinguish between event I, a general type of event that has no special requirements, and event II, a type of event that satisfies certain additional conditions. A type I event is any change of state explicitly or implicitly represented in a text. A change of state qualifies as a type II event if it is accredited – in an interpretive, context-dependent decision – with certain features such as relevance, unexpectedness, and unusualness. (Hühn 2014 [2009]: 159)

This definition was influenced by Wolf Schmid’s reading of the concept of event in Yuri Lotman’s The Structure of the Artistic Text (1977 [1970]). It thus comes to English readers from Russia via Germany.

Gerald Prince describes event in very different terms. According to him, event is “a change of state manifested in discourse by a process statement in the mode of Do or Happen. An event can be an Action or Act (when the change is brought about by an agent: ‘Mary opened the window’) or a Happening (when the change is not brought about by an agent: ‘the rain started to fall’)” (Prince 2003 [1989]: 28).

More common in Russian narratology is Mixail Baxtin’s understanding of event in connection with existence: бытие (bytiye) → событие (so-bytiye), or сo-existence, co-being. For Baxtin, being is the primordial “unique and unified event.” However, it is not possible for all things in the world to exist “in themselves,” for they are in constant interaction with other things. A man commits an act, and this results in a co-being (so-bytiye) in his life and in the world. People are always in a state of dialogue not only with the use of words but also through their acts and in encounters with random events. The universe relates to human history in the form of dialogue. This is why dialogism is so important in Baxtin’s philosophy and in his literary theory.

The different conceptual backgrounds of the these definitions of event must be taken into account when Baxtin’s term is translated in narratological studies, as is the case when translating French, German or English terms into Russian. This is in no way an isolated case. So this leads us to the following question: where can we find a convenient resource to deal with the difficulties and misunderstandings encountered when translating narratological terminology and concepts from one language to another?

A leading example of a synthetic approach to narratological study that has entered the international scene is the Handbook of Narratology, a collection of articles that sets out concepts and theories which are fundamental to the field. The online version, the living handbook of narratology, gives readers the opportunity to comment on existing articles, suggest additions or corrections and submit new articles to the editors, thus fosrtering the development of international debate.

My proposal is to create a short thesaurus with the principal definitions of terms in three (or more) languages, highlighting the features peculiar to each national tradition. To encourage active participation, such a project requires an interactive multi-user platform with a dynamic structure where approved users can post comments and notifications. The current example of this approach is the Dictionary of Unnatural Narratology (2017) compiled and edited by Jan Alber, Henrik Skov Nielsen, Brian Richardson and Stefan Iversen. This Dictionary, which gives definitions in one language only and is lacking in comparative scope, actually has another research task. Its aim is to provide a set of criteria for the definition and analysis of unnatural narratives, defined as “narratives that transcend or violate the boundaries of conventional realism.”

Our goal is to produce an International Dictionary of Narratological Terms. Its purpose is to provide a more substantial understanding of the main terms and categories in the field from a comparative perspective than is currently available. Furthermore, such a dictionary would make it possible to establish a multilingual narratological map that reflects interaction and mutual influence primarily of Russian, French, German and Anglo-American narratologies.

Monika Fludernik has proposed a possible outline for the history of narratology based on the evolution of various linguistic paradigms:

One way to map the history of narratology is […] to see it as adopting linguistic paradigms one by one as they arose in the twentieth century – structuralism (classical narratology); generativist linguistics (text grammars); semantics and pragmatics (speech act theory, politeness issues, etc.); text linguistics (conversation analysis and critical discourse analysis); and now cognitive linguistics (cognitivist narratology). (Fludernik 2005: 48)

Against this background, the central motivation of this project is to create a map of modern narratology by identifying mutual influences and common roots in the various national traditions as well as the main scientific premises and principles underlying these traditions. This is of considerable interest not only for narratology, but also for the furtherance of scientific dialogue and cross-cultural connections.

As we know, even basic terms tend to be defined in many ways. Two brief examples can serve to illustrate this point. A. J. Greimas developed the well-known actantial model that underlies the structure of all narratives. According to this theory, the actant is not a character in the traditional sense of the term, but “the one who carries out or suffers an act independently of any other determination” (Greimas and Courtés 1979: 3). This concept was taken over by Greimas partly from the syntactic theory of Tesnière, but also from Vladimir Propp’s work, Morphology of the Folktale (1968 [1928]), in which characters are grouped together into “spheres of action” (villain, donor, helper, princess, etc.). Propp’s study served as a stimulus not only for Greimas, but has done so for many other researchers as well.

Greimas went on to complete Propp’s “spheres of actions” by building onto Claude Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of the myth of Oedipus. At the intersection of these concepts is the notion of mytheme, derived by Lévi-Strauss from Propp’s function: “an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action” (Propp 1968 [1928]: 21). In the Russian tradition, however, these concepts are in no way related to each other, so that communication on these matters runs the risk of serious misunderstandings.

In fact, Greimas accepted Propp’s claim that there is a general schema for narrative, but he placed this schema within a different theoretical framework, based on the concept of structure. Propp compared the plots of several tales and produced a morphological model of narrative. Greimas, however, proceeded from the idea that literature is structured like a language and that it is based on a particular linguistic model.

One of the fundamental elements of Greimas’s model is the actant which, according to him, combines Propp’s actor and functions of the actor. At the same time, actant and actor are distinct from one another. Actor is defined as “the place of convergence and engagement of two syntactic and semantic components,” and it replaces the French term personnage (Greimas and Courtés 1979: 7–8). The Russian tradition, as we have seen, is accustomed to the term характер (character), resulting in potential confusion and the blurring of distinctions when character is confronted with actant, actor and narrator.

An interactive resource to clarify numerous points of this nature could serve to facilitate the work of narratologists in their teaching and research. Such a resource could also be of great help to translators who, if not alerted to the various meanings and definitions of narratological terms and concepts in different languages and schools of thought, run the risk of propagating misconceptions and misunderstandings as a result of faulty renderings in their translations.

The creation of an interactive comparative dictionary compiled with the resources of a live communication platform offers fruitful possibilities for the development of international narratology and research communication.


Alber, Jan, Henrik Skov Nielsen, Brian Richardson and Stefan Iversen, eds. (2017). Dictionary of Unnatural Narratology. Accessed 15 June 2018.

Fludernik, Monika (2005). “Histories of Narrative Theory (II): From Structuralism to the Present.” In A Companion to Narrative Theory. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz (eds.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., pp. 36–59.

Greimas, A. J. and J. Courtés (1979). Sémiotique. Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage. Paris: Hachette.

Hühn, Peter (2014 [2009]). “Event and Eventfulness.” In Handbook of Narratology, 2nd edition. Peter Hühn, Jan Christoph Meister, John Pier and Wolf Schmid (eds.). Berlin/Boston: Walter De Gruyter, pp. 159–78. Also available online in the living handbook of narratology at:

Lotman, Juri (1977 [1970]). The Structure of the Artistic Text. G. Lenhoff and R. Vroon (trans.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Prince, Gerald (2003 [1989]). Dictionary of Narratology, revised edition. Lincoln/London: University of Nebraska Press.

Propp, Vladimir (1968 [1928]). Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd edition. Laurence Scott (trans.). Revised and edited by Louis A. Wagner. Austin/London: University of Texas Press.

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Ekaterina Yu. Sokrouta

Candidate of Philological Sciences (2012) and doctoral candidate at the A.M. Gorky Institute of World Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. She is a research assistant at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, editor-translator of the review Novyj filologicheskij vestnik and executive secretary of the online international journal Narratorium. Her published research is in the areas of literary theory and narratology with a particular interest in metanarrative models of the Russian and European novel.