Karena Kelly: Translating Dr Seuss into te reo Māori

From Labour Day, 11:45 am on 26 October 2020

Over the decades Dr Seuss books have remained firm favourites on children's bookshelves thanks to their wordplay and sense of whimsy, often paired with life lessons. 

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Photo: Supplied / Benjamin Hopkinson

Dr Karena Kelly, a specialist in Māori language and linguistics, took on the task of translating Seuss’ last book published before his death Oh, The Places You’ll Go for Kotahi Rau Pukapuka, the project that aims to translate 100 titles into te reo. 

Dr Kelly told the Labour Day programme that the project was a labour of love, and also a gift for her six-year-old son, Asher, who is being raised bilingually.

She said translating children's books into te reo was not something she planned before Asher was born. 

"It was really just an exercise in trying to fortify the te reo Māori that was used in the home... As I came across other books that I loved or Asher loved it was an awesome little challenge to think how we might be able to turn them into te reo."  

Oh, The Places You'll Go while at first glance, looks like a kids' book, is actually intended for older audiences. She admires the word play and the fact that it contains life lessons. It was Dr Seuss's final book before his death. 

"These words of encouragement reminding us of some of the strengths that we have but also a heads up of some of the tough points along the way. I remember being surprised by the wisdom in the book..."

The word play made for a difficult but "delicious" translation task. With any translation project, she tries to recognise what is special and magic about the original language and then ensure it is preserved in "the leap between languages". 

"It was lovely to do that to a book that was dear to me in English." 

Staying true to the rhythm and rhyme as well as the content is a challenge: "There were moments when one of those taonga - you had to loosen the grip on the story in order to maintain the overall story, the fun of the story, the feel of the story you're after."

To do it justice she set it aside at one stage but while talking to Māori parents who were keen to have more te reo content in their homes, the book was mentioned as one of the favourites. So she tried again and managed to resolve the last tricky pages. 

As a working mother, bedtime stories provide critical, precious moments with her son, Dr Kelly says, and they have also evolved into an important time to use te reo. 

Currently, she is translating Homer's epic poem Iliad into te reo. While the scale of the work is quite different, many of the principles and the set of tools remain the same, she said. 

Oh, The Places You'll Go will be launched on 4 November.