lieutenant-governor handed the parchment document, inscribed in
beautifully intricate longhand, to the missionary and Bible translator
Henry Williams as the sun set over the Northland region of New Zealand
on February 4, 1840. The urgency was apparent: tomorrow morning 39
Māori chiefs would assemble to debate this document, the Treaty of
Waitangi, that would decide the future of New Zealand, and it must be
translated overnight. Literally.
potential parties to this treaty were highly motivated to come to an
agreement. The indigenous Māori population was in disarray, threatened
by marauding white traders and whalers and ravaged by a series of
bloody tribal wars, made all the more devastating and gruesome by the
recent European introduction of muskets. In response to a plea to King
William IV from the Māori chieftains, the British government had
dispatched William Hobson to New Zealand in 1839 to establish a British
colony. Now, after a marathon four-day session of crafting and
re-crafting the English text, Captain Hobson was passing it off for a
and his son had a good command of the Māori language, having lived and
worked in New Zealand for 17 years. But the language intricacies of
diplomacy and governance would prove to present some nuances that
Williams was ill-equipped to navigate.
the next morning the Māori chieftains and British representatives
gathered in a marquee on the lawn in front of the British Resident's
house to listen to the treaty read first in English and then in Māori.
At its conclusion the chiefs began their negotiations, with Williams
explaining, persuading, and elaborating throughout the day and long
into the night. As the new morning was about to dawn and their food had
run out, all of the chiefs signed the treaty. During the next eight
months government agents carried the treaty to other areas of the North
Island of New Zealand, eventually gathering 500 more signatures of
the treaty failed on many fronts to provide what the Māoris had hoped
for. In fact, their dissatisfaction eventually resulted in the
formation of the Waitangi Tribunal, established in 1975 and still going
on today, charged with making recommendations for reparations by the
government of New Zealand.
all the careful protocol and attempts at consensus, what caused this
is more than one explanation, certainly, but one primary fault can be
traced directly back to that hurried overnight translation. Consider
the text of the original English treaty, the Māoris were to agree to
. . . cede to Her
Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the
rights and powers of Sovereignty. . .
is translated as
. . . ka tuku rawa
atu ki te Kuini o Ingarani ake tonu atu te Kawanatanga . . .
if you don't read Māori fluently, you might actually be able to spot a
potential problem. You may be able to recognize that the last word of
the Māori translation (Kawanatanga) is actually a transliteration - not
of the English word "sovereignty," though, but of "governance" or
"government" (wanna guess what "Kuini" and "Ingarani" mean?).
a retranslation back into English, the text says:
. . . give
absolutely to the Queen of England for ever the complete government . .
.(translation by Professor Sir Hugh Kawharu)
Māori leaders who had hoped for the installment of a legal system to
protect them from the lawless behavior of foreigners and restore order
into their own systems were ready to allow the British crown to take
over the governance, but they were not willing to sign away their
sovereignty of their land. Yet that is exactly what happened.
did this translation error happen? Some linguists argue that there were
existing Māori terms to describe the concept of sovereignty (rangatiratanga
or mana), but it's possible that Williams and his son were
either not aware of those terms or were actually acting in the
perceived interest of their own government back in Britain and
therefore used the term they knew had a greater likelihood of meeting
with Māori acceptance.
the cost of all of this? 1 billion NZD in reparations so far.
story also appeared in much shortened form along many other stories in Found in Translation.)