Waikato-Manukau Sheet, The Treaty of Waitangi
Photo: Archives New Zealand

The New Zealand Society of Translators and Interpreters (NZSTI) is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a huge project that I was lucky to participate in: The Treaty Times Thirty, which involves the translation into 30 different languages of two versions of the Treaty of Waitangi, namely, the English original and the official modern English translation of the Māori version.

I know, it sounds a little convoluted, but a little background on the project will surely help clarify the situation.

The Treaty of Waitangi, or Te Tiriti o Waitangi in Māori, is New Zealand’s founding document. Signed by representatives of the British Crown and over 500 Māori chiefs, this document symbolises the beginning of the partnership between the Māori and the Crown. The Treaty is generally considered William Hobson’s declaration of British sovereignty over the islands, but, since it was signed in 1840, it has been a growing source of conflict due to the differences in understanding that derive from a rushed translation of the original. These differences revolve mainly around the concepts of governorship and sovereignty, and are a consequence of the lack of cultural understanding, as well as a flawed translation process.

Henry Williams, a native English speaker, was in charge of translating the draft version of the Treaty of Waitangi into Māori. As it often happens in the translation industry nowadays, Williams had to carry out this task in a rush, as the document was meant to be signed the following day. New Zealand was therefore founded on the basis of some less than ideal translation choices.

In order to illustrate these choices for those who don’t speak English and Māori, NZSTI decided to offer translations of the two versions. We worked with English sources: one of them was the English original; the other one was the translation into English of the Māori “original”, which had already been translated from English by Henry Williams.

The Treaty Times Thirty organisers decided on a three step process of translation (I was part of the Spanish translation team),  collaboration (which proved rather difficult in my team, as we were around seven translators, but we got there in the end), and review (carried out by legal experts who are native speakers of the target language).

The outcome should be a wonderful book of translated treaties, available in libraries around the country.

I am very much looking forward to seeing the final result. Currently, most languages are undergoing the third stage of the process: review. However, there are other languages which are still in previous stages. Turns out it is rather hard to find the three translators required as a minimum for every one of the thirty languages in a country with only 4.5 million people. The Treaty Times Thirty is still moving forward, slowly but surely, and I’ll let you all know when I can finally get a hold of a printed copy. Can’t wait!

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