Obituary: Giovanni Pontiero
Monday 11 March 1996
He will be identified with two writers above all (though he was responsible for the first English versions of many others): the idiosyncratic Ukrainian- born Brazilian Clarice Lispector, six of whose novels he translated, as well as a number of her shorter pieces, and of whom he had planned to begin a literary biography this year; and, more recently, the celebrated Por- tuguese writer Jose Saramago. He produced English versions of five novels by him, and the libretto of an opera based on his English text of Balthasar and Blimunda. His versions of Saramago brought him the Independent Foreign Fiction Award in 1993, the American Trans- lators' Award in 1994, and the Portuguese government's Teixeira-Gomes Translations Award, besides a nomination for the prestigious Aristeion Award of the EC.
Born in Glasgow in 1932 to parents of Italian immigrant stock, Pontiero spent some time as a seminarist at the Gregorian in Rome before going up to Glasgow University in the late 1950s to read Italian, Spanish, and Latin-American studies under Professor W.C. Atkinson.
Immediately on graduating in 1960 he set out for Brazil, a decision which was to shape his academic and personal life. The same year he was appointed Head of English Studies at the University of Paraiba, and the two years he spent working there, and also as Director of Studies at the English Cultural Institute in Joao Pessoa, gave him a taste for cosmopolitan culture of which he was to invent a strain that was all his own.
He returned to Britain in 1962 to take up a newly created post at Manchester University as Assistant Lecturer (later to be promoted Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and, in 1986, Reader) in Latin-American Studies. Apart from a spell of four years at Liverpool University and two tours of duty as Visiting Lecturer in Vermont, he was to spend the rest of his life in Manchester, retiring because of ill-health only in June last year.
Pontiero wrote a number of monographs, most notably (in homage to his own origins and his lifelong love of opera and theatre) his scholarly Eleanore Duse: In Life and Art (1986). He also edited Spanish and Portuguese texts for university presses and commercial publishers, providing informed introductions to the work of, among others, Carlos Nejar, Florencio Sanchez, Drummond de Andrade, and Manuel Bandeira (on whom he also produced a major monograph). His edition of Garcia Marquez's El coronel no tiene quien le escriba continues to be many a sixth-former's first taste of the literature of Latin America.
He also did much of the staff work which characterises the professional life of the university academic, helping out as external examiner both in the UK and abroad, producing anthologies of contemporary writing, compiling entries for encyclopaedias, acting as literary consultant and reader for several British and American publishing houses and, in the mid-1960s (when specialists in what has become a huge growth area were still few), writing the Spanish-American and Brazilian sections of The Years' Work in Modern Language Studies.
But it is as a teacher and as a translator that he will be best remembered. His ability to inspire a love of his subject in undergraduate students and his many unsung acts of kindness did much to foster a warm family atmosphere in his university department, and his hospitality at his home in Didsbury was legendary. "My tastes are simple," he would say, "Nothing but the best."
Pontiero fell ill at the height of his powers as a translator and at a time when the international recognition that was his due was finally coming his way. Despite his debilitating illness, he managed to complete his versions of two of Saramago's works, The Siege of Lisbon and An Essay on Blindness, both of which will be published posthumously.
Giovanni Pontiero, scholar and translator: born Glasgow 10 February 1932; died Manchester 10 February 1996.
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