‘He looked out of the window to think, because without a window he couldn’t think. Or maybe it was the other way round: when there was a window, he automatically started to think.’
The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
In 2016 I stepped off the London train onto the platform at Oxford station on my first ever trip to England. I instantly knew I was somewhere special. Like so many before, I felt the magnetic pull of the great libraries, of all the knowledge concentrated there. The soft stone of Oxford aged with history felt strangely comforting and intimidating at the same time. The mere idea of applying seemed purely folly, but those who had faith in me encouraged me. After all, there was nothing to lose.
I was on a business trip as a translator to a small Siberian town, 2,000 miles away from my home city of Nizhny Novgorod, when I was offered a place at Keble College to read 19th century English literature supported by the generous scholarship of the Oxford Hill Foundation. My father, a man who never cries, wept at the news.
As a first-generation student from a former closed Soviet city, I did not know what to expect. Self-doubt and imposter syndrome started to creep in, often paralysing. I had not read all works of Dickens! Was I even good enough to have imposter syndrome?! I’m not going to lie it was hard, but the rewards soon followed. My English degree taught me how to critically engage with a variety of texts and recognise patterns, how to challenge the most obvious things and test the limits of my imagination. Oxford became my metaphorical ‘thinking window’ to use the quote above by Guus Kuijer.
Some people claim that Oxford is their escapism, for me it was (and still is) findism, a place full of discoveries for enquiring minds. I chose to pursue a Master’s degree in Victorian literature hoping to make sense of Edward Lear’s nonsense, which surprisingly makes a strong handshake with so much of Russian literature and culture. What I did not know is that Oxford would help me see the world of children’s literature in a new perspective. One of my optional courses was High Modernism and Children’s Literature conducted by Prof. Diane Purkiss. It was there, during intense and sometimes heated discussions based around the concepts of childhood and the (im)possibility of children’s literature, when I realised that I want to submerge myself in this field. This has shaped my life for the past three years.
Since my graduation in 2018, I have translated 15 children’s books from English and French, ranging from good old tales by Denys ‘BB’ Watkins-Pitchford to modern picturebooks and reviewed hundreds more. I am now researching children’s and young adult literature as an Erasmus Mundus scholar at the University of Glasgow, whilst cooperating with the Dutch Foundation for Literature in Amsterdam acting as a much-needed bridge between Dutch and Russian children’s literature.
I believe that the promotion of children’s literature always flows both ways, and together with my fellow translators from the UK we have created a blog devoted to the Russian children’s books that we think deserve to be translated and recognised by a wider world audience: https://russiankidlit.org/.
Do I feel lucky? Privileged? For sure, aren’t we all who have attended Oxford. But the foundations are based on hard work. In 1954, when Mervyn Peake was giving a talk on the BBC about his illustrations for Carroll’s Alice books, he said that nonsense ‘can take you by the hand and lead you nowhere.’ In my case, nonsense eventually led me to study in one of the best universities in the world and to become a published translator who is immensely proud to share book treasures with young readers.