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Shakespeare in Māori

Kia Ora! Today (6th February) is Waitangi Day. To mark this occasion, Elizabeth Jeffery introduces us to translations of Shakespeare into Māori.

Elizabeth Jeffery
Ngātokimatawhaorua canoe
Ngātokimatawhaorua canoe

Waitangi Day is celebrated by New Zealanders across both islands to commemorate the signing of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Waitangi Treaty), and the founding of Aotearoa-New Zealand, in 1840. Celebrations include a variety of traditional Māori kapa haka (cultural performances) and kia (traditional foods), and some modern ones too. 

The most notable moment in the celebrations surrounds the Ngātokimatawhaorua. This ceremonial waka (war canoe), reconstructed in 1940 to mark the centennial of the signing, is one of the world’s largest and weighs a staggering twelve tonnes when in the water. Seating up to eighty paddlers and 55 passengers, the impressive waka was relaunched in 2010 to form part of the 170th celebrations. 

Housed on the Treaty grounds at Waitangi, the waka is only used once a year and must go through a blessing ceremony before it sets sail. First, it is carried by hand across the grounds to the sea, where it is moored for two days to allow the wood of New Zealand's giant kauri trees that form the hull to swell and become watertight. It is then blessed by members of the local iwi (tribe). According to Māori tradition, Ngātokimatawhaorua was one of the original canoes that brought the Māori people to Aotearoa-New Zealand. Understandably, modern day receptions of Waitangi Day are often conflicted due to the turbulent history that followed it.

Shakespeare's works accompanied some of the first European settlers to travel to Aotearoa-New Zealand in the nineteenth century, and were initially deployed as a weapon of colonisation. Māori people were expected to learn English and were punished for speaking Te Reo Māori. For better or worse, Shakespeare was a valuable tool in their education in the English language and, as has been seen countless times before, played a critical role in establishing British cultural dominance. As such, it was not until well into the twentieth century that Shakespeare’s texts were translated into Te Reo. Dr Pei te Hurinui Jones translated The Merchant of Venice in 1944, which would eventually go on to be adapted into the first full-length Te Reo language film, produced by Don Selwyn in 2002. Jones also translated Othello and Julius Caesar.

Sonnets in Maori
Shakespeare's love sonnets translated into Māori by Merimeri Penfold

These sparse translations have grown in number to include Troilus and Cressida (Te Humihiata Mason, performed as part of the Globe to Globe festival in 2012),  Sonnet 18 (Mason, 2012), Romeo and Juliet (Mason, 2015), the inhabitants of the fairy kingdom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Pop-up Globe, 2017-8), and a collection of nine ‘love’ sonnets translated by Merimeri Penfold in 2000, entitled Nga Waiata Aroha a Hekepia. This last collection is the only Te Reo Māori Shakespeare that has found its way into the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collections, but what a true delight it is to read.

Penfold discovers precise yet indeterminable similarities between Shakespeare’s meditations on themes such as love, time and death in order to imbue Shakespeare with cultural currency, relevancy and, most importantly, a closeness to Māori culture. As MacDonald P. Jackson says in the foreword to the volume: ‘Merimeri Penfold’s translations of a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets into Maori [sic] thus take their place within a long history of cross-cultural interchange and enrichment’. Penfold acknowledges these points of contact saying: ‘I recognised among the many alien elements some striking similarities: especially the poet’s fascination with highly wrought intricacies of language, in his feeling for the rhythmic energies of the spoken word’. Even though English and Te Reo Māori have fundamentally differing constructions, vocabularies and histories, translation is still possible due to the enduring and universal themes that Shakespeare dealt with, that strike at the heart of cultures and peoples everywhere.

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