By Mark Taylor
February 6 is Waitangi Day and New Zealand’s national holiday.
This month, 179 years ago, New Zealand’s founding document, The Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi), was translated from English into Maori by missionary Rev. Henry Williams. He had one night to translate the 568 words that set out the terms of an agreement between the Maori and the British government. I’m sure he had no inkling that his night’s work would condemn the indigenous people to more than 150 years of injustice. For in the years following the Maori chiefs’ signing of the Treaty in 1840, settlers flooded the country, illegal land purchases and confiscations became common place and bloody battles broke out between the Maori and British troops. His erroneous translation set up more than a century of strained bicultural relations.
So where did his translation go wrong? You could say he only made a couple of terminology errors, but given those errors involved the concepts of sovereignty, governance and land purchase rights, they carried immeasurable political and social significance. For example, the word ‘sovereignty’ had no direct translation in Maori as there was no central ruler of the land. Williams decided to translate ‘sovereignty’ with the word ‘kawanatanga’, a transliteration of the word ‘governance’. Maori knew this word from the Bible and from the ‘kawana’ or governor of New South Wales. This led Maori to believe that they kept their authority to manage their own affairs and ceded a right of governance to the Queen in return for the promise of protection. The Crown’s motivations to gain control over the territory must also be taken into context, which may have led to a lack of “innocence” in Williams’ translation process.
Modern governments have tried to address the past grievances, paying more than a billion dollars in settlements to the Maori. Te reo Maori (the Maori language) became an official language of New Zealand in 1987, and many recent initiatives have been taken to encourage the use of Maori, including the creation of a dictionary of Maori legal terms. If only Rev. Williams had a copy of that on his bookshelf in 1840!
In 2017, the New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters invited over 100 translators to translate the Treaty into 30 different languages, including Arabic, Danish, Farsi, Hindi and Russian, proving that the translation of the Treaty is alive and well, despite its complicated history. I believe the Treaty’s greatest power is its mere existence. For as long as it’s there, it’s proof that a translation does not die on the page. It has a past, a present and a future.
Image source: Archives New Zealand