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No. 13 (December 1955)
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It is now exactly a century ago that Rev. Richard Taylor, Church of England missionary in Wanganui, published his scholarly book on the Maori people called Te Ika A Maui. This was the first book in which many of the best-known Maori traditions and myths were published. The most remarkable feature in the book, for modern readers, is the translation of some old Maori chants, particularly those describing the creation.

It is no exaggeration to say that very rarely if ever have the great difficulties of rendering ancient Maori chants in good English verse been so successfully handled. It is a great pity that the translations are so few in number, but it is not surprising, because the style of translation of Rev. Taylor, although very remarkable to an car attuned to modern English verse, was very different indeed from the style fashionable during the reign of Queen Victoria, Rev. Taylor's contemporaries probably found his versions too bare, not sufficiently poetic, and they probably missed the wonderful accuracy with which the translations bring out the world of feeling surrounding the Maori words.

The most important of the chants, has been reprinted in this issue of Te Ao Hou. An adequate study of Rev. Taylor's life and work has never been made and although this cannot be done in the space available in Te Ao Hou, a few facts have been brought together here to explain how this exceptional translation came to be written.

A little book The Impact of Christianity on the Maori People, by A. W. Reed, published earlier this year, described in an interesting way the attitudes of the missionaries to the traditional religion. The author quotes an instruction sent by Samuel Marsden to his laity: ‘Rather propose and enforce with meekness the glorious truths of the gospel than dispute with their superstitions and absurd opinions.’ To avoid dispute was wise counsel but many people now think that the rejection of the traditional Maori world of thought as ‘absurd opinions’ was perhaps regrettable. As Mr Reed points out, in Europe many early pagan beliefs were not so rejected and have become part of the Christian inheritance.

Rev. Taylor (1805–73) was a sensitive cultured man with an almost artistic temperament. Although his capacity for work was amazing, he was not robust. Minister at Wanganui from 1843, he spent the last thirteen years of his life largely in retirement, concentrating on his scientific studies.

Wide Interests

He was somewhat of an artist; many of his sketches have survived in Te Ika A Maui and in his journals. It was also he who engrossed the text of the original Treaty of Waitangi on parchment.

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The Rev Richard Taylor

Many were his contributions to geology and botany and he took an important part in bringing the first moa bones to the attention of scientists.

‘He was interested in everything he saw, animals, plants, earthquakes and especially people. He wrote many volumes of journals and even now they make most interesting reading. Writing in probably the most troubled time in Maori history he witnessed many dramatic, painful and also beautiful incidents. In describing these he is always brief, and yet says exactly what happened and what everybody felt; he is aware of what goes on inside people, and he can write it down.

A mark against him is his extreme hatred of a certain other denomination. In this he was a man of his times; in these otherwise delightful journals there is a passage where he and the rival man of God actually challenged each other to a test of fire. He whom the fire did not burn belonged to the true religion. With the utmost seriousness Rev. Taylor relates how the contest did not take place because neither contestant was prepared to submit himself to the test first. Equally seriously, he

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expresses the suspicion that his rival had smeared himself with heat-resisting cream.

The journals give a penetrating picture of Maori life in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is remarkable however, how little it includes of the very full researches Taylor made of Maori culture. One would expect a wealth of mythical and historical material, but Rev. Taylor seems to have been at pains to keep for his diary only a record of his life as a clergyman; the Maori chants belong to quite another world which is not allowed entry. In his diary, one sees him fighting a kindly but uncompromising struggle against idolatry, faith healing and superstition. He must have had another notebook, in which he made a careful study of the Maori religion to which his deepest beliefs were opposed, but which yet he could not help respecting and in some respects even admiring.

In this admiration lay, of course, a great danger for those missionaries who were sensitive to the greatness of other cultures. This was the cause of Kendall's troubles; as he wrote himself in a famous letter: “All their (the Maoris) notions are metaphysical and I have been so poisoned with the apparent sublimity of their ideas that I have been almost completely turned from a Christian to a heathen.” Rev. Taylor, of course, had no such experience, but in the end his admiration for the Maoris’ spiritual qualities led him to a theory that the Maoris are a lost tribe of Israel and in this way he could explain to his own satisfaction why he was so attracted to their ‘superstitious' religion. He did not work out this theory however until long after he had translated the chants.

A few isolated passages in his journals show that his understanding of Maori beliefs was profound and well ahead of his times. One passage summarises so well the essential problem in grafting nineteenth century Christianity to the Maori back-ground, that it is worth quoting here:—

“We called at Atene and at Koriniti, where food was cooked and I went with the carpenter to survey their beautiful church. We then left and reached Hikurangi to sleep in the evening. The natives made a fire in the middle of the marae around which they all sat with me. They had a long account to give of their back-slidings and of several who had carried their children to the Tohunga Maori when ill to be karakied over. It is grievous to see what childish ideas are still entertained by many. They have a too general fancy that our native hospital kills instead of cures and that the Lord also does the same; that their native incantations are more potent than our prayers, and, I fear, many do not feel sensible of the sin they are guilty of or the true nature of prayer which they do not view so much in the light of supplication to God as an incantation to constrain him to yield to their wishes. Thus one man tried to justify what he had done and said that the atua Maori came and whistled over the roof of his house and told him to be strong in prayer and his child would be healed and when the child did not recover, the atua came again and bid him be still stronger in prayer and then his prayers were like a line which drew up the life of his child out of Hades and he recovered. But, said he, I only used the prayers of our church. It appears as though the natives thought that the great test of the efficacy of religion is healing the sick. Did the Jews think so and was it on that account Christ went about curing men of their temporal ailments?” (October 25, 1853.)

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Rev Taylor's most outstanding pupil was Hoani Wiremu Hipango, the Whanganui chief, who accompanied Rev Taylor on his voyage to England in 1855 and met Queen Victoria. He studied for the ministry, but worked so hard by dim candlelight that his eyesight was affected and he had to give up. When Putiki was attacked in 1865 he took command of the defence. He was ambushed by four men, but they were captured in time. Hoani fed them, then sent them away unhurt, as his religion bade him forgive his enemies. The next night ten men lay in ambush for him; when they were also trapped he did the same as before, saying: “I will not be the first to shed blood.” In the hour of victory a ball struck Hoani in the chest and he was buried with military honours.

His journals do not show signs of any interest in poetry. He probably did not consider his translations of the chants poetry at all. It is perhaps as well, for if Rev. Taylor had consciously tried to write verse, he might have used all the poetic conventions of his time and the bare precision of his renderings might have been lost. The one quoted here could well be a model to modern translators who try their hand at the ancient songs of the Maori. For instance, Taylor is the only translator to my knowledge to render Kore by ‘The Nothing’. Yet this is far superior to the conventional ‘Void’ for it is closer to the Maori feeling of the word. To bring out the world of feeling in a Maori chant in English words is a very subtle task. It is an important task for it would bring Maori and pakeha together on a fundamental level.

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UNESCO has realised the value of translation in increasing understanding between different peoples and is publishing a series of masterpieces from various countries in translation. In New Zealand, accurate and imaginative translations could do much to acquaint the pakeha with the literary and spiritual heritage of the Maori which at present is quite inaccessible and therefore does not play the part it could beneficially play in the growth of New Zealand culture.

  • Na te kune te pupuke

  • Na te pupuke te hihiri

  • Na te hihiri te mahara

  • Na te mahara te hinengaro

  • Na te hinengaro te manako

  • Ka hua te wananga

  • Ka noho i a riko riko

  • Ka puta ki waho ko te po,

  • Ko te po nui, te po roa,

  • Te po i tuturi, te po i pepeke,

  • Te po uriuri, te po tangotango,

  • Te po wawa, te po te kitea,

  • Te po te waia,

  • Te po i oti atu ki te mate.

  • Na te kore i ai,

  • Te kore te wiwia

  • Te kore te rawea,

  • Ko hotupu, ko hauora,

  • Ka noho i te atea,

  • Ka puta ki waho, te rangi e tu nei,

  • Ko te rangi e tere tere ana

  • I runga o te whenua

  • Ka noho te rangi nui e tu nei

  • Ka noho i a ata tuhi, ka puta

  • Ki waho te marama, ka noho.

  • Te rangi i tu nei, ka noho i a

  • Te werowero, ka puta ki waho

  • Ko te ra, kokiritia ana

  • Ki runga, hei pukanohi

  • Mo te rangi, ka tau te

  • Rangi, Te ata tuhi, te

  • Ata rapa, te ata ka

  • Mahina, ka mahina

  • Te ata i hikurangi.

  • From the conception the increase,

  • From the increase the thought,

  • From the thought the remembrance,

  • From the remembrance the consciousness,

  • From the consciousness the desire,

  • The word became fruitful;

  • It dwelt with the feeble glimmering;

  • It brought forth night:

  • The great night, the long night,

  • The lowest night, the loftiest night,

  • The thick night, to be felt,

  • The night to be touched,

  • The night not to be seen,

  • The night of death.

  • From the nothing the begetting,

  • From the nothing the increase,

  • From the nothing the abundance,

  • The power of increasing,

  • The living breath;

  • It dwelt with the empty space, and produced the atmosphere which is above us,

  • The atmosphere which floats above the earth;

  • The great firmament above us, dwelt with the early dawn,

  • And the moon sprung forth;

  • The atmosphere above us, dwelt with the heat,

  • And thence proceeded the sun;

  • They were thrown up above, as the chief eyes of Heaven:

  • Then the Heavens became light,

  • The early dawn, the early day,

  • The mid-day. The blaze of day from the sky.

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Rangi and Papa

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Russell Orr