Since the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1990, the country's world of books has flourished, both quantitatively and qualitatively, thanks to private publishing houses, whose efforts are responsible for the state of Lithuanian publishing today.
In 2000, there were 1,000 registered publishing houses in Lithuania. This number may seem astounding and to beg the question, "What's the population of Lithuania?" At the time, it was around three million (every Lithuanian could sing this out to you because of the famous song by Marijonas Mikutavičius called "Three Million"). Of course, not all these houses published works by Lithuanian authors. Some would release only one or two "hot" bestsellers and then close up shop.
The restoration of independence in 1990 changed our world dramatically. Those were the years of liberation from mental stagnation, when we got rid of the ideological shackles we'd been wearing in previous years. Translations of brand-new books from their original languages became much more common. During the Soviet era, many books were translated from Russian, because there were not enough people translating books from other foreign languages.
Today there are fewer publishing houses, just 400. Unfortunately, the number of people in Lithuania is decreasing as well—we are rapidly declining toward two million people. But the book world is still alive and kicking. The Vilnius Book Fair annually attracts around 60,000 visitors, with 500 events taking place over the four days of the fair. We have Books from Lithuania, an institution for the dissemination of literature abroad (following the example of Norway's Norwegian Literature Abroad). New literary festivals and new favorite places for book lovers are being created (two examples are the café Paviljonas in Vilnius and the bookstore Mint Vinetu). The Lithuanian Writers' Union hosts meetings with authors and new book presentations, which are quite popular with readers. We have niche publishing houses that hatch big and ambitious plans. We also have a world-class printing house that prints books for the Scandinavian, Russian, and other markets (though the Lithuanian part of their print business is not as large).
We also sell more and more rights, especially those of illustrated children's books. And even back in the Soviet period, the work of Lithuanian book illustrators was much appreciated abroad. Kęstutis Kasparavičius, a well-known illustrator and author of children's books, still lives and creates in Vilnius.
Our literature for adults also is getting more attention abroad. Ričardas Gavelis and his novel Vilnius Poker has fascinated the French, for example. Today many consider it among the finest novels encapsulating the Soviet era. Another novel, White Shroud by Antanas Škėma, has been a bestseller in Germany. Books by contemporary literary stars, such as Sigitas Parulskis, Undinė Radzevičiūtė, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, and Alvydas Šlepikas, are increasingly being translated into foreign languages. Some books, such as Sabaliauskaitė's Silva Rerum series of historical novels, have also become bestsellers—this series is a top seller in Poland, for example.
In this overwhelming bustle, I've noticed a new, rather pleasing, tendency. For several years now, Lithuanians have started showing a preference for their own authors rather than for translations. Very seldom do translations—even of books by famous foreign authors—sell as well as works by my publishing house's bestselling authors, such as the postindependence coming-of-age novel Pietinia Kronikas, by Rimantas Kmita, or the sermons of the Catholic priest Algirdas Toliatas.
But it is not just fiction and religious books that are attracting readers; serious nonfiction is, too. We, like any nation, have our opinionated experts who write about politics, science, or health. In fact, many readers have a strong preference for nonfiction and may think of fiction as a more "marginal" form of writing. Today, nonfiction can be just as imaginative. Take the book Žali Sausainiai by Agnė Matulaitė. It is a uniquely Lithuanian health book, whose title translates as Green Biscuits with the subtitle, "A Book for Healthy Neurotics," which shows just how quirky the book really is.
The question it prompts you to ask is, why are the biscuits green? How would translators translate this? In Lithuanian, green may refer to the color, but it may also mean that the biscuits are insufficiently baked. Of course, this is a question for the future, one we hope to help answer for you at the London Book Fair. In the meantime, let me offer this simple translation: labas, or hello!
Lolita Varanavičienė is the director of the Tyto Alba publishing house in Vilnius.