28 Dec 2019

Tom Roa - Translating classics into te reo

From The Weekend , 11:04 am on 28 December 2019

Associate Professor Tom Roa from Waikato University has translated Alice in Wonderland into te reo Māori and parts of his translation have been used at a new exhibition at Te Papa in Wellington - Wonderland.

Roa was introduced to, and entranced by, Alice as a young boy when his teacher would sit class down for an afternoon reading, he says.

Tom Roa at the Alice In Wonderland Opening December 06, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Photo: 2018 Mark Tantrum

"Just imagine this snotty-nosed barefooted, tousle-haired young Māori boy, listening to the story about this young girl following a rabbit down a rabbit hole and falling into this unbelievable world, that just captured me.

"And I suggest that it was a transformation for me at a very young age. I just sat there arms and legs folded in a trance at the story that Mrs Lucksmore read.

"And then when she would close the book of the of the afternoon, I'd look around and all my mates were asleep. I was the only one awake and I'm going 'can't you fellas hear this?'"

Bringing Alice to life through Māori was an exercise in capturing the intent of Lewis Carroll's writing, Roa says.

"The idioms are very Victorian English, a major part of the challenge was reflecting that idiom, but not so that it would be old, old Māori. So, in addressing that, in my mind's ear, I'd ask myself now what would my mum say?

"So, for example, 'Anon, to sudden silence won, in fancy they pursue. The dream-child moving through a land. Of wonders wild and new, In friendly chat with bird or beast- And half believe it true.'

"So that poetry in Māori we don't have the rhyming of pursue with new with true, but we have other stylistic devices."

Roa made use of repetition and alliteration to capture the music of Carroll's writing, he says.

One passage in Alice about fat Father William doing somersaults he told to his grandson - who speaks Māori as his first language.

"I was just playing and my grandson rolls on the floor and just burst out laughing and in Māori said 'that is just so crazy that old fat man rolling on the floor out the door,' in Māori we're having this conversation.

"I think that in the flavour of Wonderland, that's something that Lewis Carroll was really trying to achieve, to get children's minds' eyes, capturing his word pictures.

"I'm very pleased with that Father William piece, in my grandson's mind's eye I was drawing a picture of this adventure that Alice was undertaking in Wonderland, which I think that if I'd read it to him in English, may not have been the same."

Roa and his wife made the decision to raise their children as Māori speakers 40 years ago.

"That commitment to the language, in and of itself, for itself was something that for many of our peers was strange. The climate of that time was that Māori wouldn't get you anywhere.

"But Robin and I felt that we would be doing our children a disservice if we didn't give them the opportunity to explore their world using our mother tongue."

His next project is to translate The Hobbit.

"To a certain extent, a secondary part of this venture is providing that opportunity so that people can have an exploration of Bilbo Baggins' world through a Māori lens using Māori language as that hearing aid."

And like Alice it is not just a simple exercise in translation, he says.

"We're not just taking words from one language and chucking them into another language. We're ensuring that from the source context the intention of the speaker, or the intention of the writer, is caught in the target language."

Roa says after his teacher had finished reading Alice in Wonderland to his class all those years ago, she gave him the book to take home.

"Unfortunately, not long after that, our little town of Ōtorohanga was flooded and not thinking too much about how big the flood would be, we left things on the top bunk in the girls' room.

"So that copy of Alice is probably down some rabbit hole somewhere else, and maybe some wonderful white rabbit somewhere is enjoying Alice's adventures in that space."