New Zealand was founded on translation. The indigenous Māori language of New Zealand is today one of three official languages that includes English and New Zealand Sign Language. In an age of exponential growth in emerging technologies, translation and localization are critical to ongoing Māori language revitalization and development.
The Māori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa ‘land of the long white cloud’ and is attributed to early Polynesian explorers Kuramarotini and her husband Kupe around 950 AD. Originally discovered generations earlier by the eponymous Polynesian ancestor, Maui is immortalized in the ancient name for the north island of New Zealand – Te Ika a Maui ‘The Fish of Maui’.
The name ‘New Zealand’ was bestowed by the first European explorer, Abel Tasman, who arrived via Indonesia in December 1642. The expedition departed prematurely when four of the crew were killed on the second day after local Māori took umbrage. The next European to arrive was British explorer James Cook via Tahiti in October 1769. Among his crew was Tupaia, an English-speaking Tahitian navigator, whose native language shared the same proto-Polynesian language family tree as Māori.
By mapping New Zealand, Cook paved the way for eventual annexation by Great Britain in 1840. Seven intervening decades of sealers, whalers and traders were all dependent on translation and interpreting. The arrival of missionaries and print in the second decade of the nineteenth century saw a massive uptake of literacy and religion by Māori people. The first Māori grammar and vocabulary was published in 1820.
In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British Crown and representative chiefs of the Māori tribes of New Zealand. Both the historical context and preeminent significance of the dual language treaty means that New Zealand was quite literally founded on translation. The narrative soon shifted, however, from trade and religion to war and conflict and by the 1970s near-total Māori language attrition.
Seminal Māori language revitalization resulted in the passing of the 1987 Māori Language Act, which declared Te Reo Māori ‘Māori language’ a taonga ‘treasure’ and an ‘official’ language of New Zealand. The replacement 2016 Māori Language Act retained the former New Zealand Māori Language Commission and its role of issuing official certification for Māori language translators and interpreters.
Bifurcation of the New Zealand translation industry occurred in the late 1980s with the simultaneous establishment of the New Zealand Society for Translators and Interpreters (NZSTI) and the independent establishment of an interpreting presence by the New Zealand deaf community.
A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the NZSTI and the New Zealand Māori Language Commission in the early 2000s. New Zealand Sign Language became an ‘official’ language in 2006. In 2016, when the NZSTI turned 30, it completed a project to translate the Treaty of Waitangi into 30 languages alongside the three official languages of New Zealand – Māori, English, and New Zealand Sign Language.
A key challenge is the political economy of the New Zealand translation and interpreting industry and the drivers for each language market. The challenge for New Zealand is to develop a strategic approach for the Māori and New Zealand English language markets, as well as New Zealand Sign Language, and the wider and increasingly diverse local industry.
The rapidly changing technological environment presents ongoing challenges. Primary orality in Europe dates back to the Guttenberg press of 1442, while the Māori experience of print technology is barely 200 years old. For an oral culture, translation itself is a paradox. In the current age of secondary orality and global communication media, one can only marvel at what tertiary orality future exponential technologies may offer the human condition.
Different linguistic family trees present more direct translation challenges between Māori and English languages. Dual personal pronouns and possessives occur in Māori when two people are the subject. Specificity of ‘older’ or ‘younger’ is required for same sex siblings. Also, the verbal marker ‘Kua’ indicates an action has begun and may or may not have been completed.
Characteristic of high-context culture, terms like kaupapa ‘issue/purpose’ and tohu ‘sign/symbol’ can be challenging out of context, as can mea ‘anything’, which also substitutes for any root stem. Some Māori axioms of communication can also be challenging, for example Māori cultural concepts of Mauri ‘life force/essence’ and Wairua ‘spirit/energy’.
The New Zealand translation industry was built on the back of intercultural communication with the indigenous Māori population. In the information age with its exponential growth in emerging technologies, translation remains critical to both global intercultural communication and future Māori language revitalization and development.
Te Tumatakuru has Māori and Irish ancestry with tribal affiliations to Te Mateawa and Ngāti Tukorehe. He is a father, a professional translator and interpreter, and a pioneer of Māori language localization. Specializing in human communication and indigenous transhumanism, Te Tumatakuru is also the current Māori ambassador for the global Network Society project.