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Praying anew in Te Reo Māori

Three years of Sunday prayers have been translated into Te Reo Māori for the 2020 edition of 'A New Zealand Prayer Book He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa.'

Julanne Clarke-Morris  |  07 Dec 2020

A new set of prayers for use in services of Holy Communion, known as collects and sentences, have been translated into Te Reo Māori by a group of experts from across the Pīhopatanga, which was able to benefit from wisdom shared by the late Archbishop Brown Turei.

The ten-person Māori language translation group met in person over six years around different spots in the upper North Island to work on the new texts together. Their job was to test, debate and trial the poetic words and underlying theology that most effectively expressed the style and structure of each Sunday’s sentence and collect.

“There were a lot of different interpretations, which could be quite humorous at times as the group debated the nuances of meaning.” said scribe for the Pīhopatanga translations group, Rev Jacynthia Murphy.

The translation team included four bishops from Te Pīhopatanga: the late Archbishop Brown Turei, Bishop Ben Te Haara, Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu and Bishop George Connor, as well as scholars and church leaders: Ven Dr Te Waaka Melbourne, Rev Dr Peter Wensor, Rev Keita Te Moananui, Rev Iritana Hankins and Rev Jacynthia Murphy – who worked as transcribing secretary.

Bishop Te Kitohi Pikaahu, who was involved throughout the process, said the group worked to maintain the ancient structure of the prayers in their Māori form, using the same pattern of invocation, exaltation, praise and thanksgiving, intercession and then concluding with the Trinitarian formula.

He reported it was a lot of work to find vocabulary that expressed the theology of the collects in both Māori language and worldview. Sometimes the best solution was to keep it simple,

“I remember one collect began, “Servant God.”

“We looked at that for a long time and just couldn’t find a good way of saying that – not one that worked in Māori – so in the end we kept it simple, ‘E te Atua’, which is to address God as ‘God’.”

Bishop Kito said at other times it was not easy to find the words and the group had debates between different interpretations, and on the nuances between different dialects across iwi. Rev Dr Te Waaka Melbourne brought a Tuhoe perspective, Rev Keita Te Moananui from Te Kao brought her far northern lens, but like the others she brought her wisdom from decades of pastoral ministry. Rev Iritana Hankins brought her view as an expert linguist from Kaikohe and Rev Dr Peter Wensor brought his perspective from ministry in Manawa o Te Wheke and as a scholar of Māori theology and liturgy.

Bishop George Connor did much of the proofing and double checking of final texts the group had decided on, and Rev Jacynthia Murphy spent the last long hours preparing the material for print.

But Bishop Kito said the two most senior members of the group were the ones who brought the most profound knowledge to the task. For the others, having Archbishop Brown Tūrei, then in his late eighties, and Bishop Ben Te Haara in his earlier eighties, in the room felt a bit like working with giants – like being on the Paipera Tapu translation team with the likes of Sir Apirana Ngata and Bishop Frederick Bennett.

“They would sit and listen to us all talking about a word or a phrase or an idea, and as we debated they listened to us trying different dialects or words, sometimes with their eyes closed.”

“And then after all of that, one of them would just give us a [completely new] word. And it would be exactly right. Whenever that happened we all went with it.”

Bishop Kito says the two senior bishops were not only experts because they had spoken Māori as their mother tongue for so long, but they also had such long years of experience in Christian ministry.

“Archbishop Brown had been in pastoral ministry for 60 years by then. That was the store of knowledge he had.”

“They had the experience of ministering to people in Māori who were having the experiences the prayers were talking about. That's how they could find the words for those prayers.”

Jacynthia remembers one beautiful little word nestled amongst the other metaphoric words from Archbishop Brown Turei in the collect on page 662. In English the collect says,

...forgive those things
of which our conscience is afraid,

And after a long debate as to how that might be expressed in Māori, Jacynthia remembers Archbishop Brown telling the story of feeling guilty as a young boy who knew he’d done something wrong. He said it was like a pain that gnawed at his insides. So Archbishop Brown’s words for the collect in Māori now reflect that feeling he recalled for the translators:

...murua aua mea
ngau nei i ō mātou whatumanawa whakawā,

The sentences and collects cover the Sundays of the three-year cycle formerly in the Prayer Book only in English. Bishop Kito says the next task for future translators will be to look at the new sets of collects currently being trialled in English.