How can a story like Alice in Wonderland, which is so rooted in nineteenth-century England be translated into Te Reo Māori? This was the challenging question tackled by Associate Professor Tom Roa of the University of Waikato in front of an audience of Friends and colleagues from Te Papa and wider Wellington.

Just as Alice has entranced readers for many years, so Tom Roa, Waikato-Maniopoto, entranced those who heard him tell the story of how he discovered Alice as a child and how he kept the wonder as he retold it in Māori. At the beginning was a caring teacher at Ōtorohanga South School in the 1950s who read the story to a curious child. That was in English but Tom is fluent in his mother tongue which is literally the language that his mother spoke. When, by a series of  happy coincidences, Tom was asked to add Māori to the languages into which ‘Alice’ has been translated and published it was a welcome challenge.

Associate Professor Roa took us through a number of examples of how the wonder can be translated. He explained how realising that Alice “with the open-minded wonder characteristic of children, struggles to understand the complex rules adults live by” provided a way to finding the words in Te Reo Māori. Straight equivalents are not always the right words and sometimes don’t even exist, so we learnt how he found ways to express “curiouser and curiouser “, “much of a muchness” and what to do with that very English Cheshire Cat.

The process of translation is both an art and a science which requires understanding both languages and cultures. We came to understand that Tom Roa listened to his mother’s voice in his head when he was searching for words to use and we shared in his sense that understanding the lack of logic, for example in the Mad Tea Party, was a reason why translating Alice was such fun – as was his presentation.

Alison Kuiper


Image: Tom Roa (3rd from left, with Te Reo Māori Commission)