Obituary: Antonio Houaiss

WHEN IN 1964 a minor diplomatic officer, Antonio Houaiss, was arbitrarily dismissed, the Brazilian military dictatorship that had taken power that year made probably their single most important contribution to the culture of their country. The victim of this bout of ideological cleansing became also the foremost Brazilian philologist of the second half of the century.

A progressive publisher, Enio Silveira (a sort of Brazilian Victor Gollancz), decided that the newly unemployed linguist needed some economic help and grandly commissioned him to do the translation of a book difficult enough to challenge his philological reputation. Houaiss worked full-time for a year, and in 1966 Silveira published one of the best translations ever of James Joyce's Ulysses.

From then on Houaiss would become a specialist in massive scholarly tours de force. He was the chief editor of the three main encyclopaedias in Portuguese, as well as dictionaries and reference books. At the time of his death he was working on another gargantuan project, a "General Dictionary of the Portuguese Language" that would include every word used by Portuguese- speaking peoples in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

An old idea first sketched in 1986, the new dictionary became a reality as a result of the recent campaign for the multinational orthographic unification of the Portuguese language. The dictionary, which is 95 per cent finished, will have about 300,000 entries, almost twice as many as its best predecessor, and is due to be published next year as part of the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Brazil's discovery by the Portuguese. Since his death it has been renamed the "Houaiss dictionary".

Although worn lightly, Houaiss's erudition was formidable. I remember several lunches in Rio de Janeiro in the Seventies at which staff members and contributors to his encyclopaedias - including some of the greatest Brazilian essayists, scholars and historians of the time - were present, and Houaiss presided with natural authority. If his opinions on literature or politics were sometimes disputed, everyone deferred to him as far as food and drink were concerned - he was the author of a major contribution to national gastronomy (Magia ba cozinha brasileira, "The Magic of Brazilian Cuisine", 1979), and the foremost authority on beer in Brazil (A cerveja e seus misterios, "Beer and its Mysteries", 1986).

To a large extent, Houaiss was a self-taught man. He was born in 1915, the fifth of seven children of Lebanese immigrants. His father ran a haberdashery shop in Copacabana, where he grew up, when it was the heart of Rio de Janeiro, then Brazil's capital. But as a 12-year-old he preferred the company of an anarchist Portuguese tailor who indulged his curiosity about literature and radical politics. First he studied book-keeping in an academy of commerce (graduating in 1933), and soon afterwards joined the classical studies department of Universidade do Brasil, where he graduated in 1942.

His first jobs were teaching Portuguese, Latin and literature in order to pay for his studies. He became a diplomatist by the back door: after getting a job teaching in the cultural department of the Foreign Ministry he was sent to Uruguay from 1943 to 1945 to teach Portuguese and Brazilian culture. That gave him the break to pass the diplomatic concourse in 1945, becoming a vice-consul in Geneva from 1947 to 1949; there he represented Brazil at several United Nations organisations.

His left-wing ideas soon became a hindrance to his diplomatic career. Labelled as a "Communist", although he never joined the Party, he was passed over promotion to the United States and sent instead to a diplomatic backwater, the Dominican Republic. There, from 1949 to 1951, he had his second first-hand experience of a dictatorship, under the government of the Generalissimo Lenidas Trujillo. His first had been in Brazil, under Getlio Vargas's fascistic "Estado Novo" in the Thirties.

In 1951 he returned to the mainstream with a two-year posting in Athens, and finally in New York, where he worked at the Brazilian mission to the United Nations from 1960 to 1964. Immediately after the April 1964 military coup, Houaiss was forced into early retirement and expelled from the diplomatic service, as well as being deprived of his political rights for 10 years. Already in the Fifties, while serving in Athens, he had been put into "inactive availability" - paid but not employed and unable to apply for any other post - together with other left-wing diplomatists. It wasn't until 1990 that the then Presidente Collor reinstated Houaiss in the diplomatic corps as an ambassador for the purpose of retirement benefits.

Though an open Socialist militant, Antonio Houaiss was never involved in politics proper. Under the presidency of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956- 61) he was a presidential adviser, and later, under Itamar Franco (1992- 94) he was Culture Minister. Ironically, it was as a political "non-person" during the authoritarian period from 1964 to 1989 that Houaiss, with other intellectuals, became a symbol of civic resistance.

After a brief spell as an editorial writer in the national daily Correio da Manha (1964-65), he returned to scholarly activity as editor-in-chief of the Delta-Larousse Encyclopaedia (12 volumes, published in the mid- 1960s), and the Mirador Encyclopaedia (20 volumes, 1975). As a philologist he also wrote two bilingual Portuguese-English dictionaries, including the two-volume Webster dictionary in 1982.

He was a scholarly editor, starting with the critical edition of the works of the turn-of-the-century novelist Lima Barreto (1956), as well as of other classic Brazilian writers. Houaiss was also an influential critic, from early volumes such as Crtica Avulsa ("Selected Essays", 1960) to Drummond, mais seis poetas e um problema ("Drummond, Six More Poets and a Problem", 1976), where he totally renewed the critical vision of the work of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazil's leading poet.

Antonio Houaiss, philologist, diplomatist and writer: born Rio de Janeiro 15 October 1915; married 1942 Ruth Marques de Salles (died 1988); died Rio de Janeiro 7 March 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month

TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel

film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island

Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower