The Impact of Mistranslation in New Zealand

Translation mistakes can not only greatly affect the quality of your content, but can also be the cause of major misunderstandings and can cost a lot of money to fix. Sometimes poor translations can be small and even humorous, but they can also have disastrous effects if not handled properly. This is the case of the Treaty of Waitangi that took place between the British government and the Maori chiefs in New Zealand in the year 1840.

The story goes that each party signed a translation of the contract in their own language. The result was that the British understood the Maori would “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation of all the rights and powers of sovereignty.” The Maori understood that they were only giving up governance, not sovereignty. These issues are still being debated to this day.

When the treaty was drawn up in 1840, Henry Williams, a native English speaker, was given the task of translating the draft version of the treaty into Māori. The problem being the signing was meant to take place the following day, giving Williams limited time to accurately translate the important documents. He produced the translation overnight and, unsurprisingly, it was never reviewed before being handed over. 

Because of this, there were several differences in meaning between the two texts, the most critical being the translation of the word “sovereignty.” This manifested in several ways over the coming years. After the signing of the Treaty, there was a huge increase in the number of Europeans wanting to buy land and settle in New Zealand. The Māori people began to realize that they were not free to control their land under the terms of the Treaty, despite assurances by the British Government that Māori people owned all of New Zealand.

This is only one example of how mistranslations can have disastrous effects, not only on individuals, but even entire nations. The only way to guarantee that your translations are being handled with care and accuracy is to choose professional translators who have your best interests in mind. 


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