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Waitangi Day: Shakespeare's sonnets in Maori

Today is Waitangi Day, a significant day in the history of New Zealand.

Mareike Doleschal
Sonnets in Maori

Waitangi Day commemorates the signing of New Zealand most important historic document Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) by representatives of the British Crown and Maori tribes. To mark Waitangi Day, I decided to blog about our translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets into Maori.

Merimeri Penfold, a renowned teacher of Maori and human rights activist, presented her translation to our library. She autographed the title page and added a few words in Maori: “Ken nga rangatira Hekepia” which means “To the guardians of Shakespeare.”

Translating Shakespeare into Maori is a huge challenge but Penfold rose to it. Sixty four years of teaching Maori and editing dictionaries of her native tongue must have equipped her with the experience and knowledge to tackle this task. In her preface she describes the linguistic difficulties she encountered and how she overcame them: “The exercise was a challenging and demanding one. The elaborately contrived form of the sonnet, with its tight structure, complicated rhyme-scheme, and delicate metrical patterning, proved difficult to adapt to the conventions of Maori composition and to the natural energies of the language. I therefore chose to concentrate on the nuances of meaning in each poem, rather than attempting to find an exact equivalent for its formal characteristics.”

Penfold passed away in 2014. There are many heartfelt obituaries on the internet describing the loss of a much loved woman who achieved so much in the fields of linguistics and Maori rights. She was the first university teacher of the Maori language, a contributor to the seventh edition of a dictionary of the Maori language, the first female Maori university lecturer, a Human Rights Commissioner, a member of the Maori Education Foundation and last but not least the first translator of nine Shakespeare’s sonnets into Maori.

The cover of this slim volume shows a transformed Droushout portrait of Shakespeare: his face is partially covered in Maori face paint, he wears a spear-like earring and around his neck he seems to be wearing a necklace made of shells. It is one of the most unusual and intriguing portraits of Shakespeare I have ever seen and a great visual introduction to the linguistic journey the book contains.