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Translation and interpreting – te whakamāori ā-tuhi, ā-waha hoki

by Mark Derby

In the early days of European settlement, translators and interpreters were needed so Māori and Pākehā could communicate. Important documents such as the Treaty of Waitangi appeared in both languages, sometimes causing controversy. Translators and interpreters have also played an important role in the renaissance of the Māori language.

First English–Māori translations

The terms ‘translator’ and ‘interpreter’ are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are slightly different. Interpreters usually work with spoken words, often in real time, and provide a general sense in one language of what was said in another. Translators usually work with written words and aim to provide a close equivalent to the original language, as well as its general meaning.

Tupaia and Cook

The Māori language belongs to the Polynesian sub-family of languages. This meant that a Tahitian chief, Tupaia, was able to understand enough of the language to act as an interpreter on British explorer James Cook’s first voyage of discovery to New Zealand in 1769. When Māori in two canoes were encountered off Poverty Bay, ‘they came so near that they entered into conversation with Tupia; they answered all the questions that he asked them with great civility’.1

Fiery word of God

One night in 1845, missionary Robert Maunsell was awakened by the howling of a dog. His house was on fire, and with it burned his part-completed Māori translation of the Old Testament. Thirteen years later, Maunsell announced, ‘The whole word of God is now in Maori … Dark indeed were my prospects, when, this time thirteen years back, I saw my house, with all my books and papers, swept away in an hour and a half by fire.’2

Ruatara and Marsden

As Europeans began to settle in New Zealand, they relied on communication with Māori for survival. Interpreters on both sides were highly valued. The Ngāpuhi chief Ruatara accompanied the Reverend Samuel Marsden and other missionaries to the Bay of Islands in 1814 and interpreted Marsden’s Christmas Day sermon to his people. ‘The Natives told Duaterra [Ruatara] that they could not understand what I meant. He replied, that they were not to mind that now, for… he would explain my meaning as far as he could. When I had done preaching, he informed them what I had been talking about.’3

Dicky Barrett

Europeans who lived among Māori and learned their language were known as Pākehā–Māori. One of these, the trader Dicky Barrett, was described by the Reverend Henry Williams as ‘the medium of communication between the [New Zealand] Company and Maori in all their affairs’.4 However, Barrett could only speak ‘whaler Maori, a jargon that bears much the same relation to the real language of the Maori as the pigeon [pidgin] English of the Chinese does to our mother tongue’.5 The Waitangi Tribunal later found that Barrett showed ‘marked incompetence as an interpreter’, and when he was shown a deed for the sale of land was ‘quite incapable of conveying its meaning ... to the assembled Maori’.6

Translating Christian texts

Eventually, some missionaries became fluent in Māori and translated large parts of the Bible and other sacred books for publication. The outstanding linguist William Williams had translated the New Testament and most of the Book of common prayer by 1837. The missionary and printer William Colenso recognised that an accurate translation between English and Māori was extremely difficult. The Māori language had ‘great grammatical precision … its euphony, its rhythm, and its brevity, and its many exquisite particles and reduplications … all highly pregnant with meaning … almost defy translation into English.’7


Treaty of Waitangi, publications and Parliament

Treaty of Waitangi

The most politically significant translated document in New Zealand is the Treaty of Waitangi. The English text of the treaty was translated into Māori overnight on 4 February 1840 by the Reverend Henry Williams and his son, Edward. Neither was an experienced translator or expert in the Māori language, unlike other missionaries such as William Colenso. Henry Williams acknowledged, ‘In this translation it was necessary to avoid all expressions of the English language for which there was no expressive term in the Maori, preserving entire the spirit and tenor of the treaty.’1 In his translation, therefore, Williams simplified and changed the meaning of the treaty.

Tino rangatiratanga

The Māori version of the treaty guaranteed the chiefs ‘te tino rangatiratanga’ (‘full, exclusive and undisturbed possession’ in the English version) over their lands, dwelling places and all other property. Five years earlier a group of northern chiefs had signed a Declaration of Independence. The Māori translation of the declaration used the same term, ‘rangatiratanga’, to mean independence. Some of its signatories also later signed the Treaty of Waitangi. It is possible, therefore, that the chiefs who signed the treaty did so believing that they were retaining their independence, and not surrendering their sovereignty to the British Crown.

Understanding the treaty

At the time of the first treaty signing on 6 February 1840, the missionary Colenso was concerned that some chiefs had ‘no idea whatsoever as to the purport [meaning] of the Treaty’.2 Governor William Hobson insisted that every effort had been made to explain the treaty to the chiefs, and ‘we must do the best we can with them’.3 In the 21st century the exact meaning and significance of the treaty continues to be debated.

First Māori-language newspapers

In 1842 the first Māori-language newspaper, Te Karere o Nui Tireni, was published. It was a government publication for passing on official information to Māori. In the following decades many more publications were translated from English to Māori, since most Māori did not understand English well but many could read their own language.

Pei Te Hurinui Jones

Effective translation requires expert knowledge of both the original language and the target language. Pei Te Hurinui Jones was the son of a European father and a Ngāti Maniapoto mother. He had limited formal education but became a prolific writer in both Māori and English. His Māori translations of English poetry include Edward FitzGerald's The rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. He also translated Shakespeare’s plays The merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar and Othello. A filmed version of his translation of The merchant of Venice appeared in 2002.

The rise of translation services

In the late 19th century translators and interpreters were in demand in courts of law, government offices and other settings where Māori and Pākehā came into official contact with each other. In this period nearly all Māori spoke Māori, and some, especially older people, spoke little or no English. Translators and interpreters were often people of mixed ethnicity, or Pākehā who had grown up in Māori-speaking communities and had learned both languages as children.

First use of Māori in Parliament

The use of the Māori language in Parliament and the judicial system has been a contested issue since the 1840s. No legislation was printed in Māori until 1858, although several important acts affecting Māori had been passed before then. When the first four Māori MPs were elected in 1868, they and others who followed them spoke little English. English-language speeches were not always translated, so the Māori MPs had limited opportunity to contribute to Parliamentary debates.

By the 1880s Parliament employed three translator–interpreters who interpreted the speeches of Māori MPs and translated government documents into Māori. In 1913 the Speaker ruled that no MP who was fluent in English could speak in Māori unless an interpreter was present. By the 1930s Māori MPs were more determined to use their own language, and were permitted to do so if they immediately translated their own words.

    • Quoted in Claudia Orange, The Treaty of Waitangi. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, Port Nicholson Press with assistance from the Historical Publications Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, 1987, p. 13. Back
    • Quoted in The Treaty of Waitangi, p. 59. Back
    • Quoted in The Treaty of Waitangi, p. 54. Back

Translation into the 2000s

Decline of translation services

For much of the 20th century the role of Māori-language translators and interpreters reduced, as nearly all Māori could speak English and many no longer spoke Māori. English was assumed to be the ‘standard’ language of New Zealand. Parliament no longer employed a translator. Māori was used mainly on ceremonial occasions, in traditional settings such as on marae and by a handful of scholars of Māori customs and language.

Māori an official language

In 1987, following political pressure, Māori was declared an official language of New Zealand and people became entitled to use it in place of English in most public situations. An increasing range of documents were made bilingual, and required the services of translators or interpreters to make them available in both Māori and English. People appearing in courts of law, whether as defendants or witnesses, were entitled to speak in Māori, and to have the English language translated into Māori. In 1996 the census form was first produced in both languages.

Nga tangata taumata rau

In 1990 the first of an eventual five volumes of Nga tangata taumata rau was published by the Department of Internal Affairs and Allen and Unwin New Zealand. This was a translation into Māori of the biographies of Māori in the Dictionary of New Zealand biography. More than 20 translators worked on this project, from a range of tribal areas, so that their translations reflected dialectal differences. It was the largest body of writing in Māori since the translation of the Bible more than a century earlier.

Māori in Parliament

In 1990 the speaker of the House ruled that an MP was no longer required to give a translation of their words following an address in Māori. In 1999 a full-time interpreter was again appointed in Parliament. By 2004 this became a full interpretation, transcription and translation service, with three (later four) full-time interpreters. In 2010 simultaneous interpretation became available in the House and the public galleries and on Parliamentary television.

Education system

The introduction of kura kaupapa (Māori-language immersion primary schools) encouraged the translation of curriculum materials into Māori. At both secondary and tertiary levels of education, students became entitled to use the Māori language in state examinations, subject to some conditions. In 2013 NCEA examination papers were translated into te reo Māori in 16 subject areas, including accounting, business studies, physics and Spanish. University students were generally entitled to be assessed in Māori for both coursework and examinations, with their university providing translation services where necessary.

First English–Māori act of Parliament

In 2013, for the first time, a full Māori translation was included as part of parliamentary legislation. Previously, legislation was enacted in English and then translated into Māori. The Mokomoko (Restoration of Character, Mana, and Reputation) Act was fully bilingual and gave equal authority to both languages.

Māori translation on the internet

As new electronic forms of communication have become established, systems of translation have developed to ensure that they are available to users of the Māori language as well as English. In 2009 Māori was added to the online translation service Google Translator Toolkit. From 2012 the social media site Facebook could be viewed in and translated into te reo Māori. In 2013 deaf New Zealanders gained access to Māori vocabulary in the Online Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language.

Native speaker

Rangi McGarvey (Ngāi Tūhoe) grew up speaking Māori, and later learned English at school. He qualified as a licensed translator and interpreter in 1999. McGarvey worked mainly for government agencies, translating reports from English to Māori, and as one of four Parliamentary translators. At bilingual hearings such as those of the Waitangi Tribunal, he provided a simultaneous English interpretation of spoken Māori. He once stated, ‘There’s definitely more work now than when I started. Agencies are more receptive, and people are more inclined to exercise their rights to speak Māori.’1

Licensing and training

Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission), established under the Māori Language Act 1987, has statutory responsibility for examining and granting certificates in translation and interpreting. Toi Reo Māori is the official Māori Interpreters and Translators Licence, awarded to those who pass the written and oral examinations. In 2014 there were 116 licensed interpreters and translators, including four Pākehā.

In 2014 the University of Waikato offered a postgraduate diploma in interpreting and translating Māori. The New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters was a national body for translators and interpreters.

Translating from and to other languages

Although translation between the Māori and English languages has dominated New Zealand’s history of translating and interpreting, many other languages have also influenced the country’s culture. Some 19th-century missionaries spoke German, Italian or French as their first language. The translation of their letters, memoirs and other writings into English has provided new perspectives on early relations with Māori.

New Zealand Sign Language

The first training course for New Zealand Sign Language interpreters was held in 1985. A two-year diploma course began at Auckland University of Technology in 1992, and later was expanded into a bachelor’s degree. The Sign Language Interpreters Association of New Zealand was incorporated in 1997.

Found in translation

In 2005 Julia Marshall set up Gecko Press in Wellington to publish children’s books, mostly in translation from other languages. Marshall had lived in Sweden and was startled to find that a much-loved book by Swedish children’s writer Ulf Stark had been translated into 20 languages – but English was not among them. ‘I said, that’s really weird, and they said, no it’s not, it’s normal,’ remembers Marshall. ‘It was such a good book … and it wasn’t translated into English. I met that again and again.’2 New Zealand writers including Catherine Chidgey and Linda Burgess have translated work for Gecko, which has won a number of awards.

Literary translation

Works by a number of New Zealand authors have been translated into other languages, and English-language books by Māori authors including Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace have been translated into Māori.

The Centre for Literary Translation opened at Victoria University of Wellington in 2008 to research issues relating to literary translation, provide support for the translation of writers' work and develop literary translation activities. In 2011 Creative New Zealand began funding the translation of New Zealand literature into foreign languages. Each year around 10 New Zealand books are published in German, although in 2012 that number rose to more than 100, mainly due to New Zealand’s guest-of-honour role at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

    • Personal communication, May 2014. Back
    • Quoted in Caren Wilton, ‘Found in translation,’ New Zealand Listener, 17 January 2009, p. 39. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Translation and interpreting – te whakamāori ā-tuhi, ā-waha hoki', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 8 July 2020)

Story by Mark Derby, published 22 Oct 2014