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

Page 2. Treaty of Waitangi, publications and Parliament

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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.

  1. 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
  2. Quoted in The Treaty of Waitangi, p. 59. Back
  3. Quoted in The Treaty of Waitangi, p. 54. Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Translation and interpreting – te whakamāori ā-tuhi, ā-waha hoki - Treaty of Waitangi, publications and Parliament', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 October 2017)

Story by Mark Derby, published 22 Oct 2014