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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

Translations and Interpretations

Translations and Interpretations

The translations of native texts have yielded considerable valuable information, but matters of doubt should be checked with the original native text, where possible. Local idioms are sometimes difficult to translate, particularly when the native author is not available to explain the passage. The translator feels that he has to complete his task, and as he cannot translate a word, phrase, or idiom, he interprets it as best he can. If he is wrong, the error is perpetuated by subsequent writers who make use of the published translation. Even in one area, such as New Zealand, the various tribes have local words, terms, or idioms which members of another tribe cannot translate correctly unless they know the local meanings. It is this fact that makes some proverbs and cryptic sayings difficult to translate. Place names and personal names may also have originated from some local historical event, and unless the local history is known, an attempt at a literal translation of the various syllables of the name often results in disaster. When capitals are omitted from proper names, as often happens, the result is sometimes ridiculous. A classical example of such an error is the following interpretation of a proverb or saying by the Maori scholar, the Reverend William Colenso.

Rukuruku huna horahia papaka-nui
Dive hidden spread crab great

Colenso interpreted it thus, "By diving deeply (you will get) a great spread of crabs." An analysis of the English words made it difficult to accept this interpretation. Firstly, the New Zealand crabs are obtained in shallow pools and under rocks, so the process of obtaining them does not necessitate diving of any kind, let alone deep diving. Secondly, "spread" is an English colloquialism which has no meaning in Maori. Later, the saying was found to belong to the Hauraki district where both huna and papaka-nui were place names. Huna was a locality where a variety of flax (Phormium tenax) containing a page 35fine fiber was obtained for making dress cloaks, and Papaka-nui was a swamp where the leaves of the kiekie (Freycinetia banksii) were gathered for weaving rough rain capes. By a figure of speech, the place names were used to denote the garments made from the material obtained in those localities. The term ruku or rukuruku means to fold up, as well as to dive, and horahia is its antithesis in the sense of unfolding or spreading out preparatory to wearing. Hence the meaning of the saying, as explained by the people who originated it, was as follows:

Rukuruku Huna, horahia Papaka-nui.
Fold up your dress cloak, unfold your rain cape.

The saying was addressed to people about to depart on a journey in fine weather, which the weather prophets felt would not last. The correct meaning is about as remote from "a great spread of crabs" as one can possibly imagine.

Tribal chants and laments composed before European contact contain archaic words which have gone out of current use, and frequent references are made to mythology, religious ritual, and traditional events which have not been transmitted in the oral prose accounts. Elsdon Best, who recognized the difficulty of accurate translation, recorded in many of his published papers the chants but made no attempt to translate them. The same procedure was adopted by Sir Apirana Ngata in his two published memoirs on Maori songs. He found out the tribes to which the laments belonged, gave genealogies of the composers and the chief characters commemorated by the dirges, and annotated the texts as fully as possible. The primary object was to prevent the wealth of material from being lost, and the time spent in endeavoring to translate obscure passages would have delayed publication unduly. Furthermore, hasty translations might have resulted in errors which the compiler was not willing to risk. A waiting period has elapsed, and Sir Apirana is now contributing a series of translations to the journal of the Polynesian Society.

In most native texts, frequent use is made of terms which apply to definite details in technical processes. Such technical terms may be used figuratively. They cannot be translated or interpreted correctly unless the translator has some knowledge of the craft from which the terms are derived. Some translators have evaded parts which they did not understand or used general terms which lose the precise meaning contained in the text. Others have skipped passages, paragraphs, and even pages which refer to subjects considered by the translator to be indelicate. A glaring example of such omissions was perpetrated by the translator of the Maori text in Grey's classic work on Polynesian mythology. The construction of the first latrine on the edge of a cliff was described in detail in 166 words in the native text, and this pattern was followed in all the Maori fortified villages on hill-top sites. It marked a distinct advance in sanitation, and Captain Cook remarked that the sanitation of the Maori villages was better than that of most of the cities in Europe. Grey's page 36translator dismissed the 166 words of detailed description in the following eight words: "He then added a building to Rehua's dwelling." The Maori text, however, was later to be of value. After European settlement, the Maoris abandoned their hill forts and moved down to the flatlands. Here the hillside type of latrine was impractical and the people abandoned it without attempting any adjustment or sanitary substitute. Later, when the department of health urged sanitary measures, the people objected to the latrine as a European innovation. When the details of the Maori text were quoted, they had to admit that the so-called innovation was merely a modification of an ancient Maori institution. If the Maori text had not been published, information which turned out to be of great practical importance would have been lost through the prudery of an incompetent translator.

From an ethnological point of view, translations should be literal, even if the English appears crude. In trying to polish up the English, meanings are often introduced which are not in the text. Another fault is the inclusion of extra information or explanations in what purports to be a translation. The result is not a translation but an interpolation, which is a totally different thing. Very often the interpolation is wrong and readers are led astray through acceptance of the material as a translation of an authoritative native text. In Grey's "Polynesian Mythology", the story is told of the voyage of the Aotea canoe to New Zealand. An incident occurs in which Turi, the captain of the vessel, called to his brother-in-law Tuau. The English translation is as follows, "Tuau, you come and sit for a little at the house amidship on the floor of the double canoe." This quotation has been used as evidence that the Aotea was a double canoe with a deck on the cross beams between the two hulls and with a house built amidship on that deck. With others, I accepted the statement as coming from an old native historian. However, on examining the native text, I found that the Maori words were as follows,

Nau mai hoki koe ki waenganui nei.
You also come here to the middle [amidship].

There is absolutely no mention of a double canoe, a deck, or a house. They were all added by the interpreter, who had probably heard of some of the Polynesian canoes being so built and who inferred that the Aotea was of similar construction. He may have been right, but his inference should have been confined to an explanatory note and not offered as a translation of the native text. Thus, the translator's sins of commission and omission render the English version of Grey's work an unsafe medium of source material.

Many writers and readers hold that literal translations of Maori texts, particularly songs, do not do justice to the literary genius of the Polynesian people. It all depends upon whether we want facts or literature. The trouble is that in free translations we seek for nice sounding words and idioms. Free interpretations, once they are published, enter the list of source material and page 37may be accepted literally by students of native culture. The problem almost merits the printing of two translations, a literal one and a free one, or interpretation. The first would be of more value to students and the second more pleasing to general readers.