This article was originally published in The Spinoff on 5 March, 2018.
One thing I’ve noticed about being a te reo speaker is just how often people assume I can do translations. I’ve had requests to translate proverbs and prayers, lines of songs, ingredients, whole passages of books and even some wedding vows.
Sometimes, it goes even deeper than language. Last week, I had a request to explain the connection between indigenous emotion and intelligence for someone wanting to give a speech at an international conference. The inference was that cultural concepts might be just as easily translated as language.
The request I get most often, though, is to write a mihimihi, or an introduction, for someone who doesn’t speak any Māori. My response to this is layered and complex.
Initially, I want to say: “I speak a bit of Māori, that doesn’t make me a licensed translator.” But I’m too polite, and I don’t want to offend anyone. That’s the first layer.
Going a bit deeper, I can’t help but ask why people who don’t engage with te reo in an everyday capacity, who aren’t even comfortable using the word ‘kia ora’, suddenly feel compelled to offer a full introduction in te reo Māori.
Usually, the request is driven by the situation or context: a formal welcome for guests, or a cultural competency workshop. Sometimes, it’s a gesture meant to show respect and be inclusive. Often, especially overseas, it’s an expression of pride in national identity.
On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with any of these intentions. But all too often it’s the way people go about seeking help that can be taxing.
For a start, people who ask for a ‘quick translation’ don’t seem to appreciate that even seemingly straight-forward translations can be time-consuming. As with English, there are lots of different ways of saying things in Māori. It’s completely misguided to think that translation is a simple exercise in substituting English words for kupu Māori. This is particularly true if the work is large or technical.
Add to that the common expectation that someone will perform the labour of translation for free. This exposes another layer: the idea that Māori will automatically want to do things voluntarily because we’re compelled to serve the greater good.
We see this play out in lots of different ways. It’s the Māori staff member in an organisation giving their Pākehā colleagues lessons in te reo. It’s the Māori teachers carrying a disproportionate share of the workload to support Pākehā teachers within the school to upskill. It’s the Māori worker who is only ever called on to do the karakia, or when the boss needs someone to coordinate activities for Te Wiki o Te Reo.
a person that assumes bc someone identifies as māori they are fluent & can translate reo to english, homogenises our experiences in, & responses to, an oppressive settler state. most of us are still learning & u might be reinforcing cultural insecurities w/o realising!
— miriama (@maryj_oblige) February 25, 2018
Often, Māori will invest their time, resources and energy in a kaupapa because they can see the benefit of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to abuse that generosity or to take it for granted. As one of my school teacher mates once said, “I know it’s not fair, but if I don’t do it no one else will, and in the end it’s just the kids that suffer.”
Not all requests for help are motivated by self-interest. But there are definitely people out there who will happily pick the shiny bits of our language and culture, like whakataukī or haka or karakia, while ignoring basic things like correct pronunciation. These people haven’t even begun to engage with the idea of their own privilege. Te reo is seen merely as something to be used and consumed. At best, a trinket to show off on special occasions, at worst, a commodity or brand to profit or benefit from.
If you call people out on this, if you dare use the word ‘tokenism’, you can be accused of ‘putting people off’. Critics will say you’re making things too hard or too complicated or too scary, and people won’t bother trying because they’re afraid of being humiliated. The implication is that it’s up to Māori to create the conditions necessary for people to engage with te reo Māori. Like bath water, if the temperature isn’t exactly right for some, then we’re to blame.
The word ‘tokenistic’ in particular seems to cause a lot of outrage. No one ever wants to be accused of tokenism. You’d think it’s a greater offence to be called tokenistic than it is to be the victim of the cultural appropriation in question. Māori who care deeply about tikanga and pronunciation are portrayed as militant dictators responsible for the demise of our own language.
In the next breath, Māori who speak out against the inappropriate or tokenistic use of our language and customs, particularly by government departments, are reminded that we’re living in different times and the fact our language is being used at all in public settings is something we should celebrate. I’ve been reprimanded in precisely this way in comments on my own Facebook page.
This is the cultural equivalent of being told we should be seen and not heard. Whether it’s blatant or unintentional, the discomfort and awkwardness of these situations has the very real effect of silencing people. Ask any Māori how often they have to bite their tongue to avoid upsetting someone by calling out casual racism, tokenism, or just plain thoughtlessness, and the response is likely to be ‘on the daily’.
When I find myself face to face with this sort of ignorance I either want to respond with Gordon Ramsey GIFs or to bury my head in the sand. But I can’t, because at the heart of my own reo journey I know there have been people who have coached me from a place of ignorance onto a pathway of insight.
Before I started learning Māori, the strongest emotions I had towards te reo were shame, and fear. Shame that I didn’t speak it and fear of making a mistake. So snapping at someone who bungles a request for help is to disregard the patience and guidance I’ve been shown over the years. If it weren’t for my teachers – who’ve come in many guises, not just in the classroom – I’d probably still only be engaging with te reo in a superficial way too.
That doesn’t mean that it is my responsibility to educate every person who sends an email or puts up a hand asking for advice. As my friend and mentor Stacey Morrison said recently, “When we have to talk people through their ignorance and privilege it’s very draining, so if it takes time from what you need to do for yourself, your wairua and whānau, it’s okay to shut it down.”
That said, there are some basic things I wish more people knew. Things that might help prevent situations that cause misunderstandings and offence. Thing like: ‘Not everybody who speaks Māori is an expert in translation’ and ‘authentic engagement with te reo means valuing it all the time, not just when the spotlight is on you’. For example, putting in effort with relatively simple things, like correct pronunciation and basic greetings. With slightly more commitment, people can sign up for one of many of reo classes around the country.
Other useful tips include the knowledge that being perfect isn’t as important as having a go. Asking someone for help with your mihimihi is great practice if you’re a beginner, but a mihimihi is a very personal thing. Before you ask someone to do it for you, try to write as much as you can first. There’s a wealth of resources out there to help you get started. That way, when you ask someone to check it, you can show you’ve already invested a degree of your own emotional and intellectual energy. You’re demonstrating that you value the language enough to spend time on it, and that it’s not just about ticking a box.
It’s also worth remembering that rote-learning a mihimihi full of flash phrases might sound slick, but if it’s not an accurate reflection of your language abilities, or if you’re not even sure what you’re saying, what’s the point? A simple pepeha, even if parts of it have to be delivered in English at first, can cover off all the important points people are curious to know: where you’re from, and your connections to the people and the land.
It should go without saying that if you ever need a substantial or technical translation, or protocol and accuracy is crucial, then you should expect to engage a language specialist and to pay for it – in cash or in kind. People might not always accept payment, but you should always start with an expectation that you will give people the appropriate acknowledgement for their time.
Asking a friend for help is a bit different. I doubt many of us would ever expect our mates to pay us for lending a hand. But as a rule of thumb it’s good to remember that translations might not be as simple as they seem, and sending a request for help five minutes before you need it can sometimes be a drain.
A bit of reflection is always useful, too. Translating lines of verse or proverbs into Māori might sound like a nice gesture, but so long as the sentiments or concepts are Pākehā, you’re really just using te reo as a vehicle to convey ideas that may not naturally fit a Māori worldview.
If you allow sufficient time and flexibility when approaching translations, by extension, you’ll be broaching some of the most important questions; such as, who or what are you seeking to give mana to? How are you going to use the Māori knowledge you’ve asked for? Are you giving something back, or taking something away?
And finally, examine your own layers. It’s not the responsibility of Māori to help you work through them or to make the temperature of the water perfect just for you. If you realise you’ve inadvertently offended someone, be prepared to sit with those uncomfortable emotions and use it as a learning experience. Know when to be quiet and let others be heard. Especially don’t shift blame.
Of course, this isn’t a complete list of dos and don’ts. There is no comprehensive rule book or manual you can consult. It’s something you just have to feel your way with. The pathway from ignorance to insight may not always be easy or straightforward, but it’s absolutely a journey worth taking.
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