Interview: Translator Miroslaw Lipinski on Stefan Grabinski

"He was searching for clues in 'the ordinary' to reveal the extraordinary"

Stefan Grabiński (1887 – 1936) was a Polish writer of horror fiction who considered himself an expert on demonology and magic. Some critics have called him the “Polish Poe” or the “Polish Lovecraft,” and suggested he believed in the supernatural forces in his stories. Known primarily as a novelist, he wrote many short stories, including those under the name Stephen Żalny. Grabiński was popular in his day, until a trend toward more realistic fiction doomed him to obscurity. The importance of translations by writer Miroslaw Lipinski to bring Grabiński to an English-language readership, in collections such as The Dark Domain and the recently released On the Hill of Roses, cannot be understated. We’re pleased to run the following interview with Lipinski about his translation work, his impressions of Grabinski and his unique imaginative vision, and other topics. Elsewhere on WFR.com, you can find Lipinski’s translation of “Strabismus.” Those interested in learning more about Grabiński and his work should also visit the website Lipinski owns and operates about the author.

Miroslaw Lipinski

Weirdfictionreview.com: What did you grow up reading, and was weird fiction welcome in your home then?

Miroslaw Lipinski: As a boy of the 1960s in New York, I grew up reading Conan Doyle (the Holmes canon), Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ian Fleming, Sax Rohmer, and probably in that order.  I must have been forced by a student assignment to read a Poe story, but at that point I’m sure I found it hard going.  My first voluntary foray into weird fiction was reading some of the stories collected in the Ballantine paperback Lovecraft series with those moody Michael Whelan covers.  I found Lovecraft to be a compelling read that suited my fancy toward atmosphere and what some may call purple prose.

WFR: Can you tell WFR readers how and why you became a translator and what other kinds of work you do?

Lipinski: In my teens I happened to read the Jeremiah Curtin translations of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novels. (I should add Sienkiewicz as another author I read with passion, though somewhat later.)  My readings of the Curtin translations gave me an appreciation for the craft and importance of translation and instilled in me the romance of being a translator—a noble but highly underpaid occupation, I may add.  It was with the dream of translating hitherto untranslated Sienkiewcz that I first began my initial steps in translation, but as a private hobby at that time.  Eventually, a couple of decades later, I was able to interest a publisher in translations or revisions of previous translations of Sienkiewicz’s work.  As for other work, I’ve done several things in my life, but for the longest time, I’ve been an editor and chief writer and interviewer for a New Age lifestyle magazine.

WFR: What was the first story of Grabiński’s that you encountered? What was your reaction to that reading?

Lipinski: The first Grabiński story I read was “The Glance.”   When I was a foot messenger for CBS, I made a stopover at a book store during work hours and came upon Franz Rottensteiner’s The Fantasy Book in a sales bin.  He wrote about this “Polish Poe” and I was instantly intrigued and had to find out more.  Fortunately, the Slavic & Baltic Division of the New York Public Library had a copy of one of Grabiński’s old books, and “The Glance” was the first story from that volume that I read, though it’s the last story in the book.  Not only was I delighted at having found out that this “Polish Poe” was worthy of translation, but also delighted that the story spoke to me personally, as during that time I had been challenged by my own mental eccentricities sourced from panic attacks and anxiety.  I could well understand the main character’s quirks and inner dialog, and feel sympathy for his plight.

WFR: You’ve done a great deal of translation regarding Grabiński’s fiction. What most compels you about his stories?

Lipinski: I think the intellectual content, the well-structured plotting, the atmosphere and milieu, the proud misanthropy and also the humor.  There’s a bit of mischievous humor in a number of Grabiński’s stories, particularly in his early ones.

WFR: Grabiński is sometimes referred to as “the Polish Poe.” Is this a fair comparison? How would you depict Grabiński as being distinct from Poe?

Lipinski: It’s a fine comparison when one wants to promote or call attention to Grabiński.  Grabiński was a great admirer of Poe, so there is certainly an influence.  A few of Grabiński’s first-person “hysterical” narratives may seem Poe-like, but Grabiński separates himself from Poe, and every other known writer in the genre, by using the genre as a means to explore the mysteries of life and the intricacy of the human mind.  Grabiński actually believed in supernatural possibilities and was not just using the supernatural for effect.  There’s also a deep spiritual resonance that runs through his work, though this may not seem immediately apparent.

WFR: Grabiński is known for writing several sequences of stories linked by common topics or tropes: trains, doppelgangers/duality of self, fire, hidden forces of nature, etc. What caused him to hone in on these topics as often as he did?

Lipinski: He was searching for clues in “the ordinary” to reveal the extraordinary.  He also wanted to touch on subjects that the public would be familiar with, and thereby impact his readership.  The railroad was the modern means of travel in those days, much more developed than the automobile, and already had its own system, rules and regulations, as it offered freedom of movement to many people, while at the same time channeling where they would go. The train world offered varied possibilities to explore the contemporary world, as well as, for a fantasist, the world beyond.  As to fire, fire is so elemental, and has been with humanity for ages, that using it as a starting point for exploring themes was, I think, obvious to Grabiński, particularly as he may have been looking for another subject to craft a series of stories around after the success of his train stories.  By the way, he was also planning another volume centered around a single subject, this one on sex, but it never came to pass, unless one considers a later collection, Passion, such an attempt.  Grabiński was also very much interested in duality, the seemingly eternal two sides of man’s nature. The juxtaposition of good and evil heightened the special features of both, making them that much more prominent for study and meditation.  There are a good number of doppelganger-type stories in his body of work, including one, “The Problem of Czelawa,” that critics thought was clearly inspired by Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde story, though Grabiński claimed he never read that classic tale before writing “Czelawa.”

WFR: In the introduction to The Dark Domain, you mention that all of Grabiński’s stories fall within a type of fantasy he defined as “psychofantasy” or “metafantasy.” Could you explain what this is and how Grabiński was inspired to devise it in the first place?

Lipinski: It’s a fantasy that has as its basis the mind and metaphysics, our relationship to what’s both inside of us and outside.  Not all Grabiński stories are not in that sphere, obviously, but a lot are.  We know that Grabiński was deeply religious when he was a young boy, probably to the point of being obsessive-compulsive.  His story, “On a Tangent,” reveals some of the mindset he may have had at this early point in his life where an action performed, or not performed, could result in God’s wrath or grace. As with the character in that story, Grabiński bypassed this religious mania when he developed intellectually, but the quest for understanding the mysteries of life, uncovering life’s meaning amid clues both hidden and obvious, remained.  He was also an early victim of bone tuberculosis, and lost his father to TB, and all his sisters eventually died young.  So he was forced to look upon issues of life and death early on.  Then there’s a childhood experience he had that made a deep impression on him.  A school colleague accidentally wounded his hand with a pen, and the serious infection that followed, which doctors couldn’t heal, seemed to demand amputation.  His hand was saved, however, by treatments from a znachor (a Polish medicine man), who cured Grabiński’s wound.  So it was the unconventional (a “quack” pseudo-doctor) that triumphed where the conventional (modern medicine) failed.  Grabiński would explore the unconventional throughout his life and not accept conventional opinion or “knowledge” or the status quo, and issued warnings against certitude and materialism.

WFR: Do you have a favorite scene or story of his? Why?

Lipinski: That’s a hard one to answer, as the answer depends on my mood.  But certainly all his “head” stories, those stories that engage one with the inner workings of the mind, impress me greatly.  So, “The Glance” and “On a Tangent” are particular favorites, and I think “Strabismus” is brilliant.  Even a simpler story like “The Perpetual Passenger” delights me with its gentle, somewhat humorous, depiction of a phobic state of mind.  But I also think a story like “The Area” is one of his best.  I derive something positive out of many stories and passages.  For instance, that section of “On the Hill of Roses,” where the narrator describes his sun treatments, seems wonderfully three-dimensionally vivid to me.  And certainly the entire The Motion Demon collection is, for me, an undisputed classic of the genre.

WFR: How would you describe Grabiński’s literary reputation now, as opposed to the attention he received in his lifetime?

Lipinski: I’ve recently had a change of opinion about Grabiński’s reputation during the time he lived in.  Though he railed against critics in what could be almost considered a self-pitying way, he actually had a fair amount of success during the period of 1918-1922, and was heralded by several important critics.  Aside from having his stories published in newspapers and journals during that time, he had five short story collections released, an expanded edition of a sold out collection, and a play performed in Warsaw and later in Krakow and Lwow.  Not bad for a “provincial” writer, as Grabiński was considered by some.  As he veered toward the novel format he began to lose public and critical interest. That said, there is no question that he became a relatively unknown writer to most of Poland eventually and that he had zero international standing at the time, as there was no translation of his work while he lived, aside from a couple of stories translated into the Italian.  He died poor, emaciated through illness, and completely dejected.  Nowadays, translations of his work have turned up in several countries, and more are coming out each year, it seems.  This international interest began in Germany (West Germany, at that time), and has reached countries such as Turkey and Portugal.  Of course, the English speaker reader has had access to Grabiński’s work for a while. I started a zine in 1986, The Grabiński Reader, with translations of “The Area” and “Strabismus,” and from there moved on to further translations in the small press and eventually book publications.  Because of the availability of these international translations, scholars are beginning to take a look at Grabiński and evaluations, very positive ones, have begun.  I’m especially delighted, for instance, that The Dark Domain was chosen by an American college as one of the texts in its study of Slavic literature.

WFR: What kinds of difficulties, if any, do you encounter in translating Grabiński’s work? How do his stories read in the Polish language compared to English?

Lipinski: There are words and expressions that are completely unknown nowadays in Poland or by the Polish reader, so one has to seek out old Polish dictionaries, which nowadays one can find online, but when I started out I had to go to the previously mentioned Slavic & Baltic Division (which, btw, is no more, though its holdings are still there in the NY Library). But this detective work is an easy, even fun, task compared to following, with exacting accuracy, some of the serpentine theories Grabiński has one of his character’s expound on and then translating that theory so that it makes sense in English.

As to how his stories read in the English language as compared to the Polish—well, I hope as the translator of these stories, just about the same!  I’m a firm believer in making a translation respectful of what the author wrote and not interpreting or changing text, which I find a crime against the author and a disservice to the reader.  I try to be as true to the text as possible, keeping to its meaning and, when possible, structure, though I’ve certainly had times where I’ve tweaked the original text to make it a better read or more understandable in English.  But, basically, what you read is what Grabiński wrote, translated into English.

WFR: What is the most rewarding part of translating his work?

Lipinski: Probably the most rewarding part is seeing a translation gradually coalesce into something that is very readable and engaging and correct.  I go through numerous drafts, and when I get toward the last one, there is an exaltation that everything is finally working.  This is almost akin to getting in the groove when one is jogging, a point reached where everything is smooth and all the muscles are working well and with ease.  Oddly enough, I don’t get that much of a charge at finally seeing the published results in my hands, though that is always the goal.  I’m sure my calm attitude would change, however, should a publisher like Penguin decide to print, say, The Motion Demon, as part of its Penguin Classics series.

WFR: Who else have you translated, and can you tell us a little about any other current or pending projects of yours?

Lipinski: I mentioned Sienkiewicz, so a good portion of my translating work has had to do with his work.  I would love to translate his Trilogy as it should be done, but unless I get an unexpected hefty grant or find a very generous patron that may never happen.  I’ve done some translating of Polish poetry, and these poems were assembled in two small volumes from Hippocrene Books.   A translation of a surrealistic story by Roman Jaworski appeared in Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s now defunct Fantasy Macabre, and I have translated some of Witold Gombrowicz’s stories, which are unpublished and will remain so, as translations of the same stories have already seen print.  I’m slowly working on another translation project, which I can’t identify at this point, but these days Grabiński is my focus, as in the weird genre I’ve not found any Polish writer who consistently surpasses him or is as interesting a writer and figure.

My translation of Grabiński’s early collection, On the Hill of Roses, has just been published by Hieroglyphic Press, and I’m already working on Grabiński’s The Book of Fire and an expanded edition of The Motion Demon.  So there should be more Grabiński in the future for the English-speaking reader.

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