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)

THE MOST striking and unexpected thing about Giovanni Pontiero is his dry Glaswegian accent. His parents were Italian, but he was born in Scotland; he spent two years in Brazil, but is now a professor at Manchester University. 'I suppose you could say I'm a bit of a mongrel,' he says.

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.'

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