Translating New Zealand Thirty New Translations of Te Tiriti o Waitangi

Translators from “Treaty Times 30” celebrating after the presentation ceremony
© Adalen Photography 2017. © Treaty Times 30 2017

When I heard about a project to translate New Zealand’s founding constitutional document, I signed up straight away, becoming one of 116 volunteer translators working to translate Te Tiriti o Waitangi into 30 languages plus New Zealand sign language. 

Just in case you’re wondering: no, I don’t speak thirty languages, just two! After signing up, I was assigned to a small team in charge of translating Te Tiriti into German. We actually translated Te Tiriti into German twice, translating the English version drafted by Lieutenant Governor William Hobson, as well as the Māori version signed by the chiefs of New Zealand. Because it was impossible to find enough professional translators who speak te reo Māori in combination with the other project languages, we worked with Professor Hugh Kawharu’s modern English translation of the Māori version.

We began by doing our own individual translations and uploading them to Dropbox. Then we debated our translations online as a group, picking and choosing the best bits from each translation and whittling away at the result until we had created what we thought was the best possible translation of each text.

Translating Two Treaties

The Waitangi sheet signed 6 February 1840: one of nine original copies of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Reproduced with permission from Archives New Zealand The discussion process was really fun, especially when we started to unpick the differences between the English and Māori versions of Te Tiriti. When Henry Williams and his son Edward translated Hobson’s English version into te reo Māori in 1840, they completed it overnight for the meeting of chiefs the next day. The intentions of the Williamses are unclear, but they surely knew their wording would play a key role in Māori acceptance of Te Tiriti, and their translated version differs in important respects. Look at the concept of Britain’s “sovereignty”, which the Williamses rendered as the mild “kawanatanga” (governance), and the “undisturbed possession” granted to Māori over their lands, which the Williamses translated as the powerful “tino rangatiratanga” (exercise of chieftainship). Their translation choices definitely favour the British Crown, which upheld the English version, giving the British monarch “sovereignty” and according Māori only “undisturbed possession”.

You can find our German versions in the finished book of originals and translations, available as a free PDF © The Treaty Times 30 2017 Our translation project allowed us to examine these differences in detail, and to set ourselves the challenge of faithfully reproducing them in German. Our final versions of the English and Māori treaties are the result of hours of debate, and show the hard-fought decisions we made about nuances of meaning. The whole process taught me a lot about the power of language and the responsibility that comes with translation – choose the wrong combination of words and you might rewrite history!



You can find our German versions in the finished book of originals and translations, available as a free PDF here

Translator Stefan Grand-Meyer presents the Governor-General of NZ, Dame Patsy Reddy, with a copy of the book © Adalen Photography 2017. © Treaty Times 30 2017 I’m pleased to say that our efforts were well worth it. New Zealand is an incredibly multicultural country, with 160 languages spoken and a strong history of immigration. Our translations will help give more immigrants to New Zealand access to our country’s founding constitutional document. Even those who already speak English will find it useful, since the modern translated versions are a whole lot easier to understand than the old-fashioned, formal English used in Te Tiriti. Would I do this all again? Definitely. It’s a great feeling knowing that our team’s translations are now helping German native speakers better understand Te Tiriti, and consequently better understand New Zealand and New Zealanders.