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A native French speaker recently sent the following question through my email opt-in questionnaire:
“How do you translate “strategic narrative” in French?”
My answer: “discours stratégique”
Let’s see why.
But first, a disclaimer: what follows is not just a pure language discussion. So, even if this article seems like it’s not going to be relevant to you at first sight because you don’t speak French anyway, you may still want to keep reading. Unique business insight is hidden behind my translation, like a “Fève” in a Kings Cake.
Let’s start by addressing the “narrative” part of “strategic narrative” because it’s the most interesting.
If you ask a service like Google Translate to translate “strategic narrative”, you will get this answer: “récit stratégique”. But, unfortunately, you will not get “narrative stratégique”. And here is why–a couple of reasons:
- Although “narrative” is one of the 10,000 words that have been borrowed into English from French, it is not a “true cognate” (a word with the same meaning, spelling, and pronunciation in two languages). “Narrative” only exists in French as an adjective. “Narrative” as a noun is lost in translation.
- “Récit” means “story” in English. The reason why Google picks the word “récit” for “narrative” is that “narrative” is most commonly understood as “story”. In English, it is prevalent to hear people interchange “narrative” with “story’ and vice versa in their conversations all the time. Therefore, you could also translate “strategic narrative” as “histoire stratégique” (“strategic story” in English).
We primarily link storytelling with Marketing, Communication or PR, because they are areas where the currency is the word. Therefore, in business, “Narrative” is typically associated with the idea of a piece of sales and marketing collateral, or an ad. For many people, it’s a presentation slide deck. Although this is accurate, this translation limits the potential of the word “narrative” in my opinion. The application we can make of “narrative” in business strategy and leadership is way bigger.
Is there another translation for “narrative”, then?
My answer to our initial question is different from what Google will serve you. Beyond “story”, another meaning of the word “narrative” offers incredible potential for expanding how we think about the role of stories and the business leaders who tell them to build better companies.
A narrative is also a way of presenting or understanding a situation or a series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values. That definition is from Merriam-Webster. “Narrative.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/narrative. Accessed 4 Oct. 2021.
In this case, we understand “narrative” as a “viewpoint” that you would convey in your overall discourse. Hence why my translation is “discourse” and not “récit’”.
“Narrative” as “viewpoint” is for sure a more subtle definition, one that we tend to use less intentionally too. Although, here is an example borrowed from the website wordreference.com, that I bet you could easily hear this in a conversation with a colleague:
“The need for austerity has been one of the dominant narratives of recent times.”
In French: “Le besoin d’austérité est l’un des discours dominants de ces dernières années.”
Here, we understand the word “narrative” as an ideological representation.
As I have written before in Story Or Viewpoint? , in this case, we mean “Narrative” as something tied to a broader set of concepts, such as “discourse”, “rhetoric”, “ideology”, “thesis”, “perspective,” or even “attitude”. This definition is like a wide-angle lens that offers the opportunity to think about “narrative” in many forms. We can see your “narrative” not only in your story but also in your attitude, your behavior, your culture, your policies, your connections and impact on society, your actions and decisions, your relationships with specific partners and investors, your involvement in politics, your stand about social issues, and how you think about the future.
“Narrative” as “discourse,” is strategic for a CEO, a founder, or a business owner. In those cases, you must carefully and intentionally build your “strategic narrative” because it is a crucial instrument for many of a CEO’s accountabilities:
- Differentiation: your viewpoint is a chance to disagree with your competitors.
- Adoption: your viewpoint can frame why people should get your product now.
- Decision: your viewpoint is a powerful filter to decide what aligns with your strategy or not.
- The creation of a movement: if your narrative includes a cause, it will mobilize people to support your efforts.
- Alignment: a viewpoint is a chance to help people in your team take a position.
- Collaboration: with a clear viewpoint, people know what to do; they figure things out and don’t need control.
- Trust: investors and partners like to work with a company aware of what they want to defend.
Not so lost in translation
“How do you translate “strategic narrative” in French?” used to be a question I was asking myself as well a while ago.
I am an exophoric writer. So when I write in English, I am often lost in translation. But I like to wander around in dictionaries, and I am glad I noticed a subtle yet essential nuance in the way you can translate the word “narrative”. The French words brought an interesting point I could have easily missed if I never had to try to translate “strategic narrative” in French.
So, I guess, as Tolkien said, “Not all who wander are lost.”