12 Sep 2019

How do you translate 'Chinese' or 'coriander' into te reo Māori?

12:16 pm on 12 September 2019

These are the questions that the Māori Language Commission, Te Taura Whiri, and their translators are faced with as they ensure that te reo remains a living language, that evolves as the world changes.

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Photo: RNZ / Rob Dixon

Te Taura Whiri, the Māori Language Commission, creates and publishes about 300 words every year.

Here are some examples of kupu hou (new words) that were created this year:

  • Nīhaomā - Chinese
  • Tūmataitinga - privacy
  • Pouaka Wā Whakawhiu Kore - amnesty bin
  • Rūma Tīni Kope - baby change
  • Puoto paura tinei ahi - dry powder fire extinguisher
  • Koriana - coriander

The word tūmataitinga, which has been created in response to privacy online, derives from tūmataiti, which loosely translates to "stand face small", Te Taura Whiri chief executive Ngahiwi Apanui said.

"It's really important in terms of finding these words where we can that have actually evolved from the language, rather than transliterating words, for instance, like, poutāpeta for post office."

"We're starting to move away from those types of terms, and transliterating so much - although some of them are pretty cool - it's pretty clear what they are, there was no concept of them before they came, were brought into New Zealand, but it's always good to use words that approximate these things, so I think tūmataiti for me is a nice word without having to turn to a transliteration like parāiwhiwhi, or a similar word which sounds really, really strange."

He said that the kupu Māori for coriander - koriana - is a good example of how transliterations can be useful because the word is easily understood.

All new words go through a database, He putunga kupu, where translators provide feedback on the word, and then they start to socialise the word through social media, to see how it goes down, before making it a recognised word and publishing it in its Papakupu, or dictionary.

"We don't have the authority to say that this is the official word, and that's not a bad thing, what we want is for the Māori language fraternity to say that we own those words and tell us yeah we'll use them, that's more important I think, than actually us having the mana to say to everybody you have to use this word because we are the authority."

He said that not all matatau te reo speakers are good at translating, because it forces you to look at the language in a different way.

"It brings you into a new world, it's more than just speaking Māori... I've really enjoyed being pulled into the world and having to think about the language itself and how its made up and being pulled out of lazy habits, using macrons, thinking really in a logical way about the language and how our ancestors might have looked at a new concept in the modern world."

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