28.1.09

The Waitangi Treaty: translation mess-up or deliberate deception?



The Waitangi Treaty is New Zealand's foundational document.  It comes in two versions, British and Maori, and the differences between them have caused many problems. The English text effectively guarantees the British more power than the Maori text. As a translator, I was interested in how this could come about by relatively innocent means, and the likelihood that it was deliberate.


  • I suspected there might be a problem of concepts in English not existing in Maori and vice versa and this site confirms that, saying that the Maori didn't have a concept for 'sovereignty', a concept that is closer to 'governance' existed and was used. Maori may not have understood the range and implications of British concepts of rule. Another site suggests that a term closer to sovereignty existed in Maori and was deliberately not used in the treaty, that the terminology was in fact a subject of discussion. The test question is: could the translation have been made better using Maori language as it was at the time. Otherwise of course a workaround such as a definition should have been incorporated.
  • Knowing translating, it's easy to suspect incompetence. The translator was apparently a missionary called Williams, probably educated in Britain. It would have been better practice for the translator to be a native Maori speaker, preferably one with knowledge and experience of British culture. Failing that, a small committee of bilingual individuals could have verified the translation. In fact, there was a consultation between the translator and the chiefs but it perhaps bore on the meanings of the Maori version, not the British version.
  • Naturally enough, some people suspect deliberate deception, more or less malevolent. Were the British determined enough to 'steal' New Zealand to lie and cheat. Or sufficiently convinced that the worthy end they aimed at justified the means. I think that on the whole they were perhaps not flat out evil, but were happy to 'massage' agreement by careful choice of words.
  • Strangely enough, the recounting of the events of the Treaty reveal another kind of massaging. A lot of discussion took place between Maori chiefs and British representatives. It seems that on the whole it was positive and there was a feel-good factor going. I can't help wondering if, especially in a culture where written treaties were not common, the Maori chiefs signed on their approval of the discussion at least as much as the small print of the actual treaty. It's a very natural thing to do psychologically.
  • The differences in meaning did not seem extremely relevant initially but became exacerbated later as the situation evolved. More British settlers arrived than had perhaps being envisaged. One of the main difficulties surrounded the sale of Maori land. The Maori could sell their land to the crown exclusively, and at the time this may have been protective. Only a few decades later, the situation was so changed that this stopped the Maori from making large profits on land sales and favored the British state and British settlers. I am not convinced that the treaty is really unclear on this in either language. The real problem is that by this time the Maori had signed themselves into becoming a subject people, with certain rights no doubt, but not the right to renegotiate the agreement.
I can't help noticing that leaving aside the question of sovereignty/government the treaty revolves around notions of property and owner that are probably not fully native British or native Maori. I don't really know the full implications, but in Europe property is vested in individuals with a right of transmission to direct descendants. The concept of property vested in an ethnic group only seems to arise in colonies, and it's quite foreign to my personal experience. How is that managed, and how does it compare with Maori notions of property at the time? And what now? The right of some urban Maori to land has been questioned. Some rural Maori are quite European in appearance. The treaty established distinct rights for initially distinct groups of people who are no longer distinct. But it was made to solve an immediate problem.

That initial problem itself bears examination in cultural terms. British settlers were under no authority, but they were effectively protected by British forces regardless of their actions. Under what authority were Maori individuals? What control did chiefs exercise? What would be the usual response to the disorders committed by the British if committed by a Maori of another tribe? Could one appeal to the chief of that tribe to impose order as the Maori did with the British?

It's a complicated encounter between foreign cultures in which British culture clearly dominated, in the very form of the Treaty, but which was probably intended for the benefit of the Maori. The British dominate rather unpleasantly in the painting above, but that's another story. When you think of all the cultural mismatches at work, it's not surprising there were issues.