A reading from the book. Vana Manasiadis (first left), poets Michelle Ngamoki (third from left), Alice Te Punga Somerville (fourth from left), Maraea Rakuraku (also co-editor, fourth from right), Anahera Gildea (second from right); translator Herewini Easton (fifth from left)

Book of the Week: A manifesto for a true bilingual literature

A new book of translated Māori verse joins Taika Waititi “in his calling out of language laziness”. So why were the authors ignored by a literary festival looking for new voices? An essay by the book’s co-editor, Vana Manasiadis.

Tātai Whetū means constellation of stars. It also means tongue twister. In Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation there are seven wāhine poets just as there are seven sisters of Matariki. In Tātai Whetū, Matariki’s seven sisters respond to mana wāhine, to voice and tongues. Their poems are unapologetic and powerful, are not middle-brow or white-washed or necessarily easy.

Tātai Whetu is also a bilingual intersection. It joins the kōrero about bilingualism and te reo Māori, and racism in Aotearoa. It joins Hēmi Kelly when he says “I immediately notice the macron is missing over the ‘a’ in Māori”, (in his review of Paul Moon’s Killing Te Reo Maori), and Anika Moa when she challenges the bully boys, “Moko are a direct link to my whakapapa…would you like me to be another skin colour and a male too?” It joins Taika Waititi in his calling out of profiling and language laziness (read: refusal).

Because what language actually means in Aotearoa is a pretty big kōrero. It’s words, yes, but it’s also what our shared breaths mean, our stares, our ancestors under our skin, tā moko and occupation and recognition. In Aotearoa, as in any place where indigenous language has had no choice but to respond to colonisation and language tune-out (at best), translation to or from te reo is completely political. Of course it is. The language choices are political. The access is political. The results are political.

In Tātai Whetū the translators aren’t the only ones who are standing-in-two-places-at-once: the poets have also been translating and navigating all the dominant notions and spaces, recesses and permissions. In Tātai Whetū our poets – Maraea Rakuraku (also my co-editor), Anahera Gildea, Michelle Ngamoki, Tru Paraha, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Dayle Takitimu, Alice Te Punga Somerville – witness from within and move across to te reo through our translators – Jamie Cowell, Herewini Easton, Te Ataahia Hurihanganui, Hēmi Kelly and Vaughan Rapatahana. Collectively they move deeper into language, and its volume. They take up some of the space.

So translation is really all about reclamation, freedom of movement, equality. It evens the territory and levels the hierarchies. Central kaupapa of the Seraph Press Translation Series has been that translation is about getting under the skin of another. In Aotearoa, it’s this code switching (or the shifting between languages as you talk) that engenders real partnership: two voices listening and responding.

And, translation creates a synergy that challenges typically Pākehā ideas of a single genius author. Tātai Whetū is an exchange between artists, artist-translators and teacher-translators, between writers and readers and participants. And the outcome is collaborative language reoccupation. (Readers of Tātai Whetū, we’d love you to read the English alongside the Māori, rather than instead of – even if you aren’t fluent in te reo – especially if you aren’t.)

So maybe Tātai Whetū is a manifesto for a new New Zealand/Aotearoan form: a true bilingual literature. It is definitely a manifesto for intersectional wokeness (yes, those two words in the same phrase). Because if we’re talking about the franchise of our women, but not talking about our non-white women and racism – environmental, structural, cultural or casual – then we’re only-half talking.


We both know a language is waiting inside my tongue – Alice Te Punga Somerville

Kei te mōhio tāua, he reo tei tōku arero – translated by Te Ataahia Hurihanganui


So how was the book launch? Despite being part of Writers & Readers Week in Wellington, with a few notable exceptions the mainstream literati were mostly absent. Patricia Lockwood was wrapping up her much anticipated event, local stars were starting theirs. Later, during a major press event, an organiser of another festival told me she hadn’t heard of our event – a pity since she was on the look-out for new voices – but took out her programme open on the page our launch was on.

Back to the beginning.

In Aotearoa, the journey to biculturalism and bilingualism (seeing blurbs and bios in te reo alongside the English in festival programmes, for example) has a few intersections to navigate. If white privilege is, as writer Reni Eddo-Lodge says, “dull, grinding complacency”, then getting past it can’t mean business as usual. As in translation, privilege has to surrender its syntax.

The participants of Tātai Whetū stood at the entrance of Te Whare waka o Pōneke, overlooking the water, under brilliant sun. Hinekaa Mako led ngā manuhiri and the big sea air through the entrance. The book was introduced to the world with mana, embrace, indignation, waiata and wairua. There was mauri ora. It was different from the other festival events, and it was overdue. And when I think on it, this line from the Los Angeles Times about Beyonce’s Coachella Spectacular makes me beam: “So much for the ‘White People Stage’”.

Nau mai, haere mai. On Tātai Whetū’s stage, there are seven wāhine poets of Ngāti Raukawa-ki-te-tonga, Ngāti te Rangi, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Te Āti Awa, Kāi Tahu, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Hine, Ngāti kahu o Torongare, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Tiaina, Tūhoe, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, Te Aitanga-a-Huaiti, Ngati Pākehā.

Five translators of Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Rehu, Ngāti Wērā, Ngāti Tūhourangi, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Tahu, Ngāti Ira, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Tahu-Ngāti Whāoa, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Te Whiti, Ngāti Pākehā.

Two editors of Tūhoe and Ngāti Kahungunu, and Ngāti Kirihi; and one Ngāti Pākehā independent publisher.

One artist of Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Toarangatira and Ngāti Porou.

Seven Ngāti Pākehā and Ngāti Kirihi book-binders who hand-bound the books over many hours and held each treasured volume.

TātaiWhetū: Seven Māori Women in Translation is small but mighty and determined. It is brightness and it is provocation. Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou katoa.

Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation edited by Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis (Seraph Press, $20) is available from Unity Books.

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