Books: Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Adventures in humility: Robert Winder talks to Giovanni Pontiero, who translated The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago (Harvill 14.99)
Saturday 17 July 1993
His wanderings have produced a deep and perplexed preoccupation with language. 'I couldn't say what my first one is. Truth is, I'm probably most at home in Brazilian Portuguese. But it's not so much a question of being interested in language as of being worried by language. Saramago once said that the only translators who worried him were the ones who didn't have any problems.'
Pontiero has translated many works by the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, and now he is as thoroughly engaged by the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is his second work to appear in English. 'The nicest thing that's happened to me is that I've been able to stick to one author,' he says. 'It's enabled me to listen to this one voice, work out what's compelling about it - a bit like an actor getting into a part - and trying to carry that into English.'
He is modest about the translator's role, and uses the word 'humility' frequently. 'Rabassa once said that translators should be adventurous, but not adventurers. They should leave that to the author.' But in Saramago's case, fidelity was not a straightforward matter. 'He's very fond of aphorisms and proverbs - there's almost a history of popular culture in there. But our proverbs don't quite match, they sound either dated or too modern. But part of the appeal of translating is that you find out your own limitations, discover certain tones of speech and levels of language you haven't explored before.'
For Pontiero there is a gratifying cross-over between his life as an academic and his work as a translator. He hopes, in the future, to write biographies of both Lispector and Saramago. But it leaves little room for manouevre. 'I get up at 5.30 as a rule and try to do three and a half hours before I go to the university. I never let a day go by. It's like knitting - I've taken it on planes and off planes, so as not to lose the thread. But I love explaining to students what it is that makes this work great. And the academic side of me loves the research - the sheer erudition of the man is amazing, and he goes off in so many directions. I've taught Marquez for years, and we know what to expect. But with Saramago every book is so totally new.'
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Barbarians vs Samoa interrupted by sprinklers as fans criticise lack of Wi-Fi and poor seating at West Ham's Olympic Stadium
- 2 Caitlyn Jenner car crash: Driver who died in collision sued by surviving passengers for $18.5m
- 3 Watch the Supermoon live: How to see the brightest Moon of the year tonight
- 4 Hulk Hogan wants to be Donald Trump's running mate in the US Presidential election
- 5 Blood Moon and Supermoon: September to bring brightest – and dimmest – full Moon of the year on same night
Game of Thrones season 6: Jon Snow theorists believe Ned Stark's son may have a twin sister
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: Monty Python-inspired Australian Sam Simmons wins comedy award with 'very silly' show
X Factor hopeful Mason Noise: 'How is Cheryl Fernandez-Versini in the music business, let alone a judge?'
Game of Thrones season 6: Director promises most exciting premiere yet 'starts off with a bang'
Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Online toy marathon to launch new film
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
'Women only' train carriages: Jeremy Corbyn unveils radical move to tackle public harassment
Black holes are a passage to another universe, says Stephen Hawking
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
Stock up on canned food for stock market crash, warns former Gordon Brown adviser
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics