Hemi Kelly, a licensed translator and full-time lecturer at Te Ara Poutama, was given the privilege and challenge of translating Witi Ihimaera’s latest novel into te reo Māori.
Sleeps Standing tells the story of the Battle of Ōrākau, which took place near Te Awamutu in 1864. For three days, 300 Māori men, women and children repelled assaults from 1,700 British troops. But dwindling supplies and ammunition meant that they could not hold out indefinitely.
This, ‘the last stand of Rewi Maniapoto’, marked the end of the Land Wars in Waikato, with vast tracts of land being confiscated for European settlement.
Hailed as ‘our version of 300 Spartans’, it also captured the imagination of the world. Ihimaera and Kelly were surprised to discover that the battle had been enacted as part of the British Empire Exhibition at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1924.
Ihimaera’s account is not told from the usual perspective of the victors or even the main protagonists, Ngāti Maniapoto, but from the viewpoint of the tribes that went to support them. The story is narrated by a 16-year old boy from Rongowhakaata named Moetū, which means ‘to sleep standing’.
Spanning past and present, it begins with a young man of Māori descent returning to New Zealand from Australia, seeking permission to name his soon-to-be-born child after an ancestor – Moetū.
In the novel, Ihimaera fuses fact and fiction, incorporating historical eyewitness accounts and waiata. He also employs formal, traditional language and modern-day slang alike – further adding to the complexity of translating the piece from English to Māori.
Kelly began work on the project in early-2016.
Ihimaera had initially contacted him in pursuit of te reo tutorials. The lessons never quite eventuated, but Kelly approached the author the following year, with a request to translate one of his previous works into te reo Māori. They met and talked, and the answer was ‘no’.
Two weeks later, Ihimaera came back with an unpublished piece – a story about the Battle of Ōrākau.
“He told me: ‘It’s a Ngāti Maniapoto story and you’re from Maniapoto, so it would be fitting if you translated this’,” says Kelly.
For more than a year, he laboured over word selection, language nuances and dialect.
“Some language is easy to translate and others are much harder. With the latter, you have to go elsewhere for inspiration. And, some of that inspiration came from eyewitness accounts that were written in Māori. The words and metaphor they used to describe what they experienced during those three days was invaluable,” says Kelly.
Sleeps Standing is the first bilingual English-Māori novel with the respective texts printed side-by-side on the page – ‘giving access to both the richness and poeticism of the Māori, and the gritty realism of the English’.
Kelly’s sophisticated parallel text literally drew gasps from the audience at a recent book launch, prompting Ihimaera to say: “Had I known that his te reo was so beautiful, I would have translated the Māori into English”.
Kelly has been teaching te reo Māori courses at AUT for five years.
His classrooms are filled with people of all ages from different ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds.
“Learning te reo is a personal thing. For some people, it can be a very emotional journey. While others might be interested in learning another language or gaining a deeper understanding of Māori culture,” says Kelly.
His own journey of learning began at age 13.
Kelly grew-up in an English speaking household, with a Māori mother and Pakeha father. But, his grandmother was an inherited speaker of the language.
“I remember visiting her and having a sense of being proud to be Māori. She instilled the desire in me to learn te reo Māori, which I took up at high school,” he says.
Further to being a potent piece of literature, Sleeps Standing is an equally powerful resource for teaching and learning te reo Māori. It joins a handful of works, including Pounamu Pounamu and Whale Rider, to be translated into te reo Māori.
The first national commemoration of the New Zealand Wars will be held on 28 October 2017.
Click here to listen to Hemi Kelly being interviewed on RNZ Nine to Noon
Click here to purchase a copy of Sleeps Standing