Translating Lorde, codename Henry

17 Sep, 2021
Hēmi Kelly, Hana Mereraiha and Lorde in the studio
Hēmi Kelly, Hana Mereraiha and Lorde.

Hēmi Kelly is excited about the positive impact that popstar Lorde’s te reo Māori version of Solar Power will have on revitalisation of the language.

The AUT te Reo Māori Lecturer helped Lorde make Te Ao Mārama and his voice is also in the backing vocals.

“People are really thrilled and excited to see someone who has a platform as Lorde does promoting te reo Māori in this way,” he says.

Dame Hinewehi Mohi approached Hēmi Kelly to help translate and work with Lorde on four of the five songs on the album.

“My cousin Hana Mereraiha actually translated three of the songs, I translated one and Sir Tīmoti Kāretu translated the other, but we, I suppose, mentored Lorde through the process together. It was a special little journey.”

Kelly (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Tahu–Ngāti Whāoa) says he found the superstar from Auckland to be humble and down to earth.

“I felt very comfortable with her. She was so open to learning. She is a really beautiful soul; she’s so humble.”

Work on the project, over about three months this year, had to be kept secret, so the code name “Henry” was used – after AUT Associate Professor Ella Henry. (Lorde is also known as Ella Yelich-O'Connor.)

“Any kind of correspondence it was always with ‘Henry’, and if we were in the presence of others and something came up, we would use that name,” he says.

“It wasn’t hard to keep under wraps, but with the excitement you wanted to tell people what was happening.”

The process of translating Solar Power was about honouring the songs’ meaning and the music rather than being a straight translation of words, Kelly says.

“So when one of the song lyrics says in the title track Solar Power “and I throw my cellular device in the water”, my interpretation of that is that Ella’s throwing away any distractions for the moment to be present. And so we translated it to “whiua aku māharahara ki waho rā” –  I throw my worries away for the moment. It was always a sense-for-sense translation or interpretation.”

Kelly says the majority of comments he has seen have been positive towards the album, though not all.

“Some people are questioning whether Te Ao Mārama should have been made - but I can’t see any negative impact. Let it be,” he says.

“I don’t think it’s healthy for us to be restricting our language to any one people or any one place. For our language to continue to survive it needs to inhabit every single part of our society. We need to have the masses on our side working with us.”

Kelly says Lorde plans to continue her language journey.

“We’ve since started te reo Māori lessons,” he says.

“It’s not just her putting her songs out into the world. She’s going to continue to learn.”

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