Understanding Misunderstanding. Vol.1: Cross-Cultural Translation

by Tamara Brzostowska-Tereszkiewicz (Volume editor) Magdalena Rembowska-Płuciennik (Volume editor) Beata Śniecikowska (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 258 Pages
Series: Cross-Roads, Volume 17


This book explores the covert and overt creative potential of misunderstanding. Viewed from the authors’ perspective, misunderstanding proves an elementary and unavoidable aspect of linguistic and cultural communication that can have a surprisingly beneficial impact on social relations and concomitantly stimulate the emergence of new cultural forms. As the authors of the book prove, cross-cultural contact is definitely a dynamic and asymmetric process rather than a static and symmetric transfer of values from one culture to another.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • List of Contributors
  • Introduction. Misunderstanding as Innovation
  • PART I: Interference as Art
  • Understanding Understanding: Literary Translation as a Special Case of Interference
  • On Not Knowing Languages: Modernism, Untranslatability and Newness
  • The Desire to Name the World. Andrzej Tobis’s A-Z Project and the Uncategorized Things
  • PART II: Misunderstanding in Translation
  • Two Aspects of Translational (Mis)Understanding: In Literary Work and in Literary Reception
  • (Mis)Understanding Charades: A Translation Perspective
  • Misunderstandings(?) in Translation: J. L. Borges on “Various Versions of Homer”
  • Matryoshka-Hamlet: Censorship in Nikolai Polevoi’s Popular Shakespeare Translation
  • PART III: Politics of Misunderstanding
  • The Fusion of Art and Politics: A Futurist Misunderstanding?
  • The Politics of Literary Misunderstanding: From Identity Prejudice to Hermeneutical Injustice
  • Resistance in Omission: Day-to-day Conversations, Consensus and Misunderstanding
  • Index

List of Contributors

Günter Berghaus

University of Bristol

Tamara Brzostowska-Tereszkiewicz

Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences

Magda Heydel

Jagiellonian University

Zakhar Ishov

Uppsala University

Marta Kaźmierczak

University of Warsaw

Lisandre Labrecque-Lebeau

University of Quebec in Outaouais (UQO)

Katarzyna Lukas

University of Gdańsk

Wojciech Małecki

University of Wrocław

Joanna Partyka

Institute of Literary Research,

Polish Academy of Sciences

Magdalena Rembowska-Płuciennik

Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences

Clive Scott

University of East Anglia

Beata Śniecikowska

Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences

Juliette Taylor-Batty

Leeds Trinity University

Tamara Brzostowska-Tereszkiewicz, Magdalena Rembowska-Płuciennik, Beata Śniecikowska

Introduction. Misunderstanding as Innovation

Can misunderstanding be innovative? Can anything positive come from a communication failure, pragmatic uncertainties and semantic ambiguity? At first glance, not at all. Misunderstanding seems like nothing more than a communicative inconvenience and disorientation. The main idea behind this two-volume collective work, however, is to show that studying misunderstanding in an integrated manner may create an inverted mirror, reflecting essential pieces of cultural history. Moreover, we are deeply convinced that such an image of cultural reality is surprisingly complementary to what we already know well about cultures in contact, and wide-spread and seemingly fully described artistic currents and their local specificities. Viewed from our perspective, misunderstanding proves an elementary and unavoidable aspect of linguistic and cultural communication that can have a surprisingly beneficial impact on social relations and concomitantly stimulate the emergence of new cultural forms. Various artistic practices not only represent communicative misunderstandings, but also invent them and make them available as artistic strategies.

Misunderstanding has so far been conceived as an obstacle to effective cultural cooperation, both counterproductive and causing irreparable losses with regard to cultural encounters. It has been neglected, if not entirely absent from mainstream approaches to cultural communication in the humanities. Researchers have been predominantly concerned with avoiding, bridging, and overcoming interlingual and intercultural misunderstandings, while promoting the strategy of cultural adaptability. Remarkably, the major 20th century models of linguistic communication assumed that language tends to redundancy in order to avoid mistakes of transmission during the processes of coding, transfer, and decoding. Surprisingly, such models still remain in force behind many contemporary cultural theories of communication.1 Recent discussions on cultural transfer models reveal a significant incongruity between the descriptive tools and the actual character of the object of cross-cultural communication studies. ←9 | 10→Although asymmetry between cultural systems is crucial to cultural transfer, we believe that there is no such a thing as a “failed” cultural transfer. Moreover, the very notion of “a failure in cultural transfer” or “a failed transfer” implies a hierarchy of cultures, where the inferior part is not sufficiently developed to “successfully” adapt foreign cultural elements2. We believe that the process of translation, which involves both linguistic and cultural transference, is a rudimentary communicative environment which makes creative misunderstanding occur. In this sense, a translation cannot be considered a full equivalent of the original meaning. It necessarily involves semantic shifts and depends primarily on the translator’s creative effort.

The innovative potential of misunderstanding as a stimulating force for cultural change can be explored in many domains of cultural interaction, including verbal and non-verbal, artistic and non-artistic communication processes. Still, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the creative potential of cultural misunderstanding manifests itself most vividly when it is linguistically structured and worked out artistically. A paradigmatic example is the widely known cultural misunderstanding between Chinese and Anglo-American cultural poetics which resulted in the splendid and vigorous development of modernist Imagism, namely, Ezra Pound’s “mistranslations” of classic Chinese poems in Cathay (1915) inspired (or, more precisely speaking, “misled”) by Ernest Fenollosa’s “misunderstanding” of Chinese written language (The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, 1908). One of the greatest exegetes of Pound’s poetry, Hugh Kenner, has rightly spoken of “the virtual necessity of the misunderstanding” in Pound’s appropriation of Chinese poetry and in establishing innovative techniques in modernist translation practices.3 The idea of misunderstanding is also frequently referred to by literary scholars in the context of studies devoted to the problem of creative writing in non-native languages, as practiced by such emigre writers as Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski), and Samuel Beckett. Studies on the reception of these authors in non-native cultures show that their works were first rejected by critics as excessively extravagant, estranging, linguistically and culturally incomprehensible. They were only “rediscovered” years later as the renewers of the artistic languages of their new homelands. A related field that is fairly well-researched is the creative writing of those luminaries of modernism who grew up in mixed ←10 | 11→cultures, for example Franz Kafka, who wrote in French and Italian in addition to his native German, Czech and Yiddish, and the Russian-born American novelist and critic Vladimir Nabokov. The present collective monograph confirms that literary territories are indeed a forum for studying misunderstanding in communication and its implications for cross-cultural translation.

In the field of cultural literary history, misunderstanding has only ephemerally appeared as a subject of critical studies. An example of the vitality of this research problem surfaced in a distant academic environment. In her essay The Poetics of ‘Misunderstanding’: An Ahistorical Model of Cross-Cultural Literary History, the Chinese-American comparative literature scholar Xiao-mei Chen reminds us to be aware of the creative role which senders and receivers play in both intra- and cross-cultural communication. Chen puts forward the idea that misunderstanding is a “legitimate and necessary factor, indeed, […] a dynamic force, in the making of literary history”4.

Looking for antecedents to our approach to misunderstanding in cultural literary history, we might point to several concepts in Western post-structuralist hermeneutics and reception theory of the 1970s. From Hans Robert Jauss’s celebrated essay Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory (1967) to Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967) and Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) both literary theory and criticism have increasingly treated “misunderstanding as the mechanism that creates literary history, indeed which makes literature and perhaps all forms of human communication and interaction possible”5; even if the inevitability of that driving force and its subversive power are not desired. Instead of praising hiatus and incongruity, we are interested in revealing the positive aspects of cultural misunderstanding.

The objective of the two-volume monograph Understanding Misunderstanding is to foreground the innovative, both covert and overt, potential of communicative and translative displacement in cross-cultural encounters. The books contain a selection of papers presented at the international interdisciplinary conference “Poetics of (Mis)understanding: Culture-Making Potential of Interference in Artistic Communication” organized by the Department of Historical Poetics of the Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences and the Foundation “Center for International Polish Studies” in Warsaw, December 7–8, 2017.

←11 | 12→

The contributors strive to answer how a diligent reading of culture-specific and tradition-bound works produces “fallacious,” “erroneous,” but nevertheless productive, persuasive and ultimately accepted views on the original’s semantics and function. The authors explore multiple aspects and sources of misunderstanding in cross-cultural contacts: multilingualism in literature; translation mistakes as an inspiration for artistic creativity, experimental translations as strategies of going beyond the limits of linguistic communication, and, last but not least, the politics of misunderstanding. The first volume of the collective monograph addresses a number of problems which have profound implications for the understanding of the dynamic, vibrant cross-communication processes.

It is not a coincidence that eminent practitioners and theoreticians of translation treat their professional vocation as not only a linguistic operation, but also as an activity conveying culture-specific perceptual realities and cognitive conceptualizations. Examining the very concept of understanding in relation to translational reading experience, Clive Scott arrives at crucial re-definitions of the source text as formal and expressive palimpsest, and of literary translation as a mode of textual interference. Providing a set of his own intermedial conceptual translations of Guillaume Apollinaire’s and Charles Baudelaire’s poems, the scholar foregrounds the essential role of the target recipient’s sensual, somatic, perceptual, and cognitive experience of the artistic text. Both Marta Kaźmierczak and Katarzyna Lukas focus on the tension between incomprehension and comprehension being the core of various literary works. Kaźmierczak examines literary charades and the intended conundrum in the original and translated works by Achille Campanile, Charlotte Brontë and John Fowles, whereas Lukas investigates some examples of multilingual entanglements resulting from poor translation within the play by Plautus (and its Polish version) and in J. S. Foer’s novel. Both scholars inquire into how the translators represent the original (mis)comprehension as the fabric of the original texts causing both humorous and surprisingly serious effects. Lukas also scrutinizes German retranslations of one of the most influential volumes of Polish Romanticism – Ballady i romanse [Ballads and Romances] by Adam Mickiewicz tracing their (changing) stylistic immersion in the target culture, and, last but not least, revealing the surprising perpetuation of the early translators’ (mis)comprehension of the original.

Misconception may also determine the process of acceptance of literary characters. In his chapter on the 19th century Russian reception of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Zakhar Ishov investigates a set of startling images the Danish prince acquires in the target culture. His analysis focuses on Nikolai Polevoi’s popular translation portraying Hamlet as a “superfluous man” – a ←12 | 13→Russian intellectual utterly helpless before political reality and completely lost in contemplation of his pitiful fate and pathetic human condition.

However, in the opinion of Magda Heydel and Joanna Partyka even purposeful transmutations of the original may not always be proclaimed invalid. Heydel’s article concentrates on Andrzej Tobis’s A-Z photographic project based on Bildwörterbuch Deutsch und Polnisch: Mensch – Natur – Gesellschaft (1953). While tracing the artistically intended (mis)matches between the lexical entries and their photographic counterparts, the author emphasizes the creative potential of misunderstanding as deliberate artistic strategy and a source of cross-cultural estrangement. In her metatranslatological study, Joanna Partyka explains why Jorge Luis Borges praised mistranslations as a full-fledged inspiration of his own original writing. According to the Argentinian writer, the freedom of re-creating the original text produces unexpected and astonishing effects. Thus, mistranslation should be evaluated as an invaluable source of expressiveness and beauty, and as an indispensable side-effect of translational processes. This approach is inseparable from the focus on modernist multilingualism as an integral part of the cultural landscape and artistic creativity. In her article on interlingual tensions and translational misunderstandings in modernist prose, Juliette Taylor-Batty clearly demonstrates that “not knowing” foreign languages can indeed become a source of modernist innovation and stylistic experiment.

However, not only cultural, but also social and political impact of misunderstanding seems to have been overlooked. Günter Berghaus focuses on the intersections of art and politics, discussing some of the greatest misunderstandings within Italian Futurism. The author traces the entanglements of the Marinettian idea of making politics aesthetic, and art – political. Utopian projects collapsed one after another in different socio-political circumstances, leaving a trace in the Futurist artistic and meta-artistic texts and proving politics and art cannot be easily joined. Wojciech Małecki adds some other solid arguments to the debate on political aspects of miscomprehensions. They are also a function of the major partitions existing within literary and social fields, as Małecki theorizes the problem. Misunderstanding occurs at the intersections of political and social factors, including class, ethnicity, and others. As such it not only has important consequences for the institution of literature, but also – in a broader context – for the whole public sphere.

Lisandre Labreque-Lebeau takes the discussion on miscomprehension to the level of everyday and face-to-face contacts. She analyzes linguistic and semantic markers of misunderstanding as an elementary and unavoidable element of verbal and non-verbal communication, highly influencing interpersonal/intercultural dialogue and the exchange of any aspect of tradition. As the author ←13 | 14→shows, misunderstanding creates almost transparent setbacks in everyday conversation. The shared conversational space of negotiations of meaning inevitably converges with the areas of active resistance of interlocutors. These two opposed forces seem to establish the equilibrium of our temporary consensuses in face-to-face exchanges.

Cross-cultural contact is definitely a dynamic and asymmetric process rather than a static and symmetric transfer of values from one culture to another. New “understanding misunderstanding” may become a crucial factor whenever people try to negotiate their past, disseminate ideas, compare analytical tools and terms, or arrange common ground for connections and dialogue across linguistic and cultural borders. In the world of intense international contact, in a time of increasing social and political conflict, we do need to deepen reflection on the reasons for various cultural misunderstandings, and on their positive aspects. Such reflection enables a collaborative rather than confrontational approach to communication – both face to face and at a global level…

This collective monograph is one of the publications commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences (1948–2018). The editors express their gratitude to the Institute authorities for co-funding the publication.

The editors of the monograph would also like to express sincere thanks to its reviewer, Prof. Witold Sadowski (Institute of Polish Literature, Warsaw University) whose sustained counsel and incisive methodological suggestions have helped to complete this monograph in its present form.

Within the monograph all the quotations from literary works of art appear both in the original form and translated into English. Cited fragments from critical and scholarly texts are given in both language forms only if the original shape of the quote is of special importance for the presented analyses.

←14 |

1 See Anna Veronika Wendland, “Cultural Transfer,” in: Travelling Concepts for the Study of Culture, ed. B. Neumann, A. Nünning (Berlin and Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2012), p. 55.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (July)
Translation studies Comparative literature Eastern European literatures Cross-cultural communication Literary criticism Poetics
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020., 258 pp., 6 fig. col., 6 fig. b/w, 5 tables

Biographical notes

Tamara Brzostowska-Tereszkiewicz (Volume editor) Magdalena Rembowska-Płuciennik (Volume editor) Beata Śniecikowska (Volume editor)

Tamara Brzostowska-Tereszkiewicz is Associate Professor at the Department of Historical Poetics, Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. Her most recent works concern comparative modernism studies, literary translation studies and experimental translation. Magdalena Rembowska-Płuciennik is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Historical Poetics, Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. Her main subjects of research are literary theory (cognitive narratology) and literary anthropology. Beata Śniecikowska is Associate Professor at the Department of Historical Poetics, Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. Her most recent works concern transcultural genre studies, comparative avant-garde studies and intersemiotics.


Title: Understanding Misunderstanding. Vol.1: Cross-Cultural Translation
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
260 pages