Pontiero was born in Glasgow and graduated from the university of Glasgow in 1960. In 1962 he was appointed lecturer in Latin American studies at Manchester. He was later promoted to senior lecturer and finally Reader in Latin-American Literature in the Victoria University of Manchester until his retirement in 1995. He was the principal translator into English of the works of Clarice Lispector, and met acclaim for his translation of Lispector's A Hora da Estrela, known in English as The Hour of the Star. Pontiero is known for saying, "Encounters with the animal world are frequent in Lispector’s stories. Untouched by human contradictions, animals are more alive because they are more secure than human beings."