A few days ago I got a call from Shabnam Dastgheib who works as a journalist and columnist for various NZ publications, including The Listener and The Dominion Post. She was interested in writing a short piece on my involvement with a bible translation project being facilitated by the New Zealand Bible Society. Shabnam was great to talk to, and I’m pleased with her article which you can read here.
The article includes a draft translation of Genesis 1:1-3 which I’ve been using to help explain my approach to translating scripture into Te Reo Māori. The full explanation for this particular translation wasn’t included in Shabnam’s article for the sake of brevity, so I’ve included it below to add context for anyone who is interested. Please note that my translation is a working draft for now.
An example of Māori Exegesis of the Bible
Translators of the Bible have two basic choices. They can translate word-for-word, or they can translate concept-for-concept. Bible translators typically oscillate between the two choices as they attempt to find the most accurate and compelling translation possible.
When translating the Bible into Māori language, translators also have the option of by-passing the English language altogether, being able to translate directly from Hebrew and/or Greek biblical texts into Māori language wherever dynamic and equivalent meanings exist.
One such example can be found right at the beginning of the Holy Bible in Genesis 1:1-2
Genesis 1 (King James Version)
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
Kenehi 1 (1952 Māori Translation)
1 He mea hangā na te Atua i te timatanga te rangi me te whenua.
2 A kahore he ahua o te whēnua, i takoto kau; he pouri anō a runga i te mata o te hōhonu. Na ka whakapāho te Wairua o te Atua i runga i te kare o ngā wai.
The phrase “without form, and void” (or “formless and empty” in other translations) is a translation of the Hebrew phrase Tohu vaBohu (תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ).
While biblical scholars may posit other possible meanings for the phrase Tohu vaBohu (including the notion that it is a nonsense phrase designed only to rhyme), the most compelling idea comes from the Hebrew people themselves via Talmud-Mas Chagigah 12a:
It is taught: Tohu is a green line that encompasses the whole world, out of which darkness proceeds, for it is said: He made darkness His hiding-place round about Him. Bohu, this means the slimy stones that are sunk in the deep, out of which the waters proceed, for it is said: And he shall stretch over it the line of confusion [Tohu] and the plummet of emptiness [Bohu].
Obviously, the teachings of the Rabbis, as recorded in the Talmud, can lead to all sorts of esoteric discussion. But at the very least it gives us insight into what the Hebrew people have to say about their own scripture, written in their own language.
The words “Tohu” and “Bohu” can be translated word-for-word as “chaos and emptiness” and “formless and void”. The Talmud, however, offers us an understanding of Tohu vaBohu as a united concept. The Talmudic definition suggests, in the most basic sense, that both the “chaos” of Tohu and the “emptiness” of Bohu are not merely to do with being “formless and void”. Instead, because we have the description of things “proceeding from” both “Tohu” and “Bohu”, we can posit that they have more to do with the sense of “origin” and “creative potential” that the creation narratives of Genesis are all about.
We could say then that “Tohu” and “Bohu” are part of the fabric of creation, part of the originating fountain of the universe. There’s a Māori phrase that offers the same potential meaning: Te Kore me Te Pō
Taken singularly, Te Kore can mean creative energy, potential, nothingness, and/or the void, while Te Pō can mean formlessness, warm darkness, and/or night. I’ve heard the phrase Te Kore me Te Pō often spoken of (c Rev Māori Marsden et al) in the context of Māori narratives of the creation of the universe, whereby Te Kore me Te Pō are part of the fabric of creation, and the originating element of creation’s latent potential.
Given these understandings, it seems a simple and obvious conclusion to me that the Hebrew Tohu vaBohu (תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ) found in Genesis 1:2 could find it’s optimum Māori translation in the phrase Te Kore me Te Pō. This would allow for a translation as follows:
Kenehi 1 (Translation by Rev D S Tamihere)
1 I te timatanga, ka hangā e te Atua ko te rangi me te whēnua.
2 Ka noho te ao i roto i Te Kore me Te Pō, a, ka noho hoki te pouri i runga i te mata o te hōhonu. Na, ka tīonioni te Wairua a te Atua kei runga i te kare o ngā wai.
This differs from the 1952 Māori translation which posits “A kahore he ahua o te whēnua, i takoto kau” (literally the earth was formless and barren) as the translation of choice.
Māori readers will also note other small changes I’ve made, including use of the phrase ka tīonioni te Wairua a te Atua. This is my attempt to translate the Hebrew veRuach Elohim Merakefet (וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת) with a sense more akin to the hover and flutter of a bird’s wings (tīonioni here meaning flutter, hover as opposed to waggle) that the Hebrew veRuach Elohim Merakefet contains.
For now, the translation and explanation above help at least to illustrate my point that a Māori translation of the Bible need not simply be word-for-word. It can also be concept-for-concept, and there is great potential for Māori language to help us attain biblical understandings that English language translations may have missed entirely.