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

Page 1. First English–Māori translations

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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

  1. James Cook, Voyages in the southern hemisphere, 12 October 1769, (last accessed 6 June 2014). Back
  2. Church Journal, 10 November 1858, p. 117. Back
  3. ‘Memoir of Duaterra.’ Historical records of New Zealand, edited by Robert McNab. Vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1908, p. 363, (last accessed 6 June 2014). Back
  4. Quoted in Trevor Bentley, Pākehā Māori: the extraordinary story of the Europeans who lived as Māori in early New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin, 1999, p. 173. Back
  5. G. Clarke Jnr, quoted in Te Whanganui a Tara me ona takiwa: report on the Wellington district. Wellington: Waitangi Tribunal, 2003, p. 52. Back
  6. Te Whanganui a Tara me ona takiwa, pp. 52, 63. Back
  7. W. Colenso, ‘Contributions towards a better knowledge of the Maori race.’ Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 11 (1868), p. 82, (last accessed 16 June 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby, 'Translation and interpreting – te whakamāori ā-tuhi, ā-waha hoki - First English–Māori translations', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 March 2017)

Story by Mark Derby, published 22 Oct 2014