How a Northlander translated an 1849 te reo Maori book about bees into English

Northlander Joy Ngaropo-Hau recently translated an 1849 book on beekeeping from te reo Maori into English at her home in Hokianga with her husband Lou. Photo / Amanda Trayes

Telling the stories of the North is a passion for te reo Māori translator Joy Ngaropo-Hau, whose recent work has included unraveling the mysteries of a 173-year-old text about bees and beekeeping.

Filming in the home Joy Ngaropo-Hau shares with her husband Lou is an immediately arresting experience.

Beyond the wide lawn in front of the couple’s distinctive octagonal house, the most spectacular view opens up with the head of Te Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe below and the endless sea beyond. Ngaropo-Hau (Ngati Te Reinga) was born and raised in Waihou near Panguru on the north shore of the harbor and Hokianga is his home.

He has worn many hats in his working life – teacher, kapa haka exponent, te reo Māori TV consultant and presenter – and today works as a te reo Māori translator from his Omapere home, mainly on projects helping to tell the stories of his beloved Hokianga, Te Tai Tokerau.

Although Ngaropo-Hau is now semi-retired, one of her latest projects demonstrates the determination and openness to continuous learning that has been a common theme throughout her career.

“It was the biggest challenge and the biggest learning curve I’ve ever faced in my translation work,” Ko says of his work on Nga Pī.

The 21-page book, published in 1849, examines “the customs and processes connected with the care of bees, and the working of honey and their wax,” and was written in te reo Maori by the Reverend William Cotton.

Although not the first to introduce honeybees to New Zealand, Cotton played a major role in introducing beekeeping skills to the North Island. He was a friend of George Augustus Selwyn, and after Selwyn was appointed the first Anglican bishop of New Zealand, Cotton joined him in 1842 as chaplain to a missionary party that arrived here.

Joy Ngaropo-Hau has worn many hats in her working life - teacher, kapa haka exponent, te reo Māori TV consultant and presenter - and today works as a te reo Māori interpreter from her Omapere home.  Photo / Amanda Trayes
Joy Ngaropo-Hau has worn many hats in her working life – teacher, kapa haka exponent, te reo Māori TV consultant and presenter – and today works as a te reo Māori interpreter from her Omapere home. Photo / Amanda Trayes

Selwyn first established a residence at Te Waimate Mission, now a Category 1 historic site looked after by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. Te Waimate Mission was established over ten years ago by the Church Missionary Society.

It was here that Cotton, a passionate beekeeper with a strong interest in bees and beekeeping since childhood, bought his first hives in New Zealand from Sydney in 1844. but unfortunately the bees did not survive this trip.)

As part of his efforts to promote beekeeping skills among Maori and Pakeha in New Zealand, Cotton published several works in 1848, including A Manual for New Zealand Beekeepers and Ko Nga Pi, which was over 100 pages long.

Ngaropo-Hau understands that Cotton began learning reo Maori, taught by a Maori Deckhand, during his voyage to New Zealand. However, after Heritage New Zealand undertook the translation of Ko Nga Pī, commissioned by Pouhere Taonga, he considers his education in te reo incomplete.

“The wrong words were used; there were words that didn’t make sense, so I got a little hohha with it,” he said. “But I’m not one to give up when the going gets tough.”

Ngaropo-Hau has spoken te reo Māori all his life. She recalls that her parents, who were punished for speaking the language, did not speak directly to her and her older siblings in te reo Māori because they wanted to spare their children the same ordeal.

“But they used that language when they wanted to talk about something they didn’t want us to know about — and we understood.”

Ngaropo-Hau te reo studied Māori at secondary and tertiary level, and his approach to the language and its translation has been influenced by many experts. For example, in high school he was taught by the well-known writer and teacher Arapera Blank.

“There are many people I consider to be our experts in the field of te reo. [I work] With the good advice of one of them, “Always work with another translator to ensure quality assurance and excellence.”

Ngaropo-Hau used this advice when tackling the difficult Ko Nga Pī, receiving translation assistance from her son-in-law Adam Whauwhau, a kaiako of te reo Māori and former head translator at Te Kura, a Correspondence School.

According to him, the subject of the book added another complexity to the translation of the text.

“I didn’t know any of the processes involved in beekeeping. I had to get books from the library – manuals for beekeeping in English – which helped me, but it was still difficult, especially with the age of the book.

“But Adam and I got the translation to a point where we were really satisfied. And at the end of the project, I was so proud that I didn’t give up, which ultimately gave me more confidence in myself as a translator.”

Joy Ngaropo-Hau - a lifelong te reo Māori speaker - recently translated the script for Whina, a biopic of another Hokianga kuia, Dame Whina Cooper.  Photo / Amanda Trayes
Joy Ngaropo-Hau – a lifelong te reo Māori speaker – recently translated the script for Whina, a biopic of another Hokianga kuia, Dame Whina Cooper. Photo / Amanda Trayes

Ngaropo-Hau also recently translated the script for Whina, a biopic of Dame Whina Cooper starring Miriama McDowell and Rena Owen. Although her script was 120 pages long, she says the project was a more straightforward affair and gave her a cherished opportunity to honor Dame Whina, who she connected with through whakapapa on her father’s side.

“He is our Karan,” Ngaropo-Hau said. “Tainui [film producer Tainui Stevens] I wanted someone with the same accent as Whina and we enjoyed using the accent that I’m familiar with and from home.”

Ngaropo-Hau is a passionate advocate of the Northern language. He has worked for many years as a translator, consultant, subtitler and presenter (on the Kuia show) for Maori Television and is a certified translator through Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Maori (Maori Language Commission). However, he narrowly missed passing the written section of the commission’s certification assessment on his first attempt.

“So I waited another two years and then I challenged Te Taura Whiri. I said, ‘I’m not going back until you get an assessor from my area’, because none of the assessors were from Northland. I said, ‘It’s not fair, because some of the words I used were not familiar to them,’ he said. “So I had two assessors who were familiar with mita, so I passed.”

Ngaropo-Hau received his translation certificate at the age of 60, in keeping with a lifestyle devoted to learning.

Determined that their four children would become fluent in te reo Māori, but aware of the shortage of teachers, the couple trained to become teachers themselves. Ngaropo-Hau traveled from her home in Kaikohe to Auckland for a training year when her youngest child, Te Ao Marama, was still a baby; her husband followed a few years later.

In 1995, Ngaropo-Hau spent a year running the Dynamics of Whanaungatanga program in night classes, which was pioneered by the late Pa Henare Tate, a respected Hokianga and Catholic Church leader, and provides a framework for well-being based on Māori principles.

Recently, Ngaropo-Hau translated 12 storyboards that form part of the interpretation at the Raiātea Motuti Resource and Archives Centre, which houses a collection of Maori and Polynesian artefacts and objects relating to the history of the Catholic Church in New Zealand. Collected by Pā Tate.

“This project felt like an opportunity for me to give back,” he said. “It was a privilege.”

Another privilege of translating is being able to do it from their Ōmapere home, where he and Lou established a permanent base some five years ago. The pair first met 50 years ago as core members of kapa haka group Te Kotahitanga in Christchurch, and the couple were there last year to celebrate the award-winning group’s 50th anniversary.

Ngaropo-Hau admits that working in such an unusual place requires discipline.
Warmer than the sun shining outside on the day of our visit are the aroha, the manaakitanga and the stories the couple share with their many and frequent visitors.

“We came home; it’s beautiful and we love it,” he said. “My heart is in the stories of where I came from.”


aroha: love

hōhā: bored, fed up

kaiako: teacher

Karani: Grandma

Manaakitanga: respectful care

mita: dialect

pi: bees

te ao Māori: A Māori worldview

Te Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe: Hokianga Harbour

Te Tai Tokerau: Northland

whakapapa: line of ancestry, genealogy

■ This article has been republished in the Spring 2022 issue of Heritage New Zealand: Words: Caitlin Sykes, Photos: Amanda Trayes


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