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Maori Translation of ‘Moana’ Is a Hit in New Zealand

Experts hope the film will spark a renewed interest in the Maori language

(Courtesy of Disney)
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Each year, New Zealand honors the language of its indigenous people with Maori Language Week, a seven-day celebration filled with seminars, activities and live performances. As Charlotte Graham reports for the New York Times, the event’s 2017 installment featured a special treat for Maori-speaking little ones, with theaters across New Zealand screening a Maori-language version of Disney’s blockbuster hit Moana.

The film tells the story of a Polynesian girl who embarks on a sea-faring quest, accompanied by the demigod Maui and a very silly chicken. Its narrative is inspired by the legends of South Pacific Ocean cultures, including the Maori (though the extent to which Moana handles these legends with sensitivity and accuracy has been subject to some debate). 

It took over three months to translate the film, record the voice actors and mix the sound. The final product was screened for free in 30 theaters, and bookings were filled within 30 minutes.

The effort to translate Moana into the Maori language—or te reo Māori, as it is known by native speakers—was motivated by more than a desire to entertain children (and, in all likelihood, the adults that accompanied them to the screenings). Haami Piripi, a former head of the government body, tasked with promoting te reo Māori, tells Graham that he hoped the film would help make the language “cool, relevant and useful” to a young generation of Maori.

Te reo Māori was recognized as one of New Zealand’s official languages in 1987, but the indigenous tongue is at risk of fading into obscurity. According to New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development, the “proportion of Māori language speakers declined markedly over the last century.” In a 2013 census, just 21.3 percent of Maori people reported being able to hold a conversation in the language of their ancestors.

The decline of the Maori language began in the 19th century, when European colonists arrived in New Zealand and English began to spread across the country. By the 1950s, large numbers of Maori were moving to cities and operating with increasing frequency in English-speaking domains. This in turn “demotivated generational transmission of the language in the home,” according to an academic paper by scholars Delyn Day and Poia Rewi. But other, more insidious factors were at play as well. Maori children were once beaten for speaking their language in New Zealand's "Native Schools," which "provided another reason for the decision of some Maori not to pass it on to future generations," Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes in A Civilizing Mission? 

Efforts to revive te reo Māori were in full swing by the 1970s. Although the survival of the language is still at risk, Tweedie Waititi, producer of the Maori-language Moana, was not surprised by the film’s positive reception.

"Our people have been hungry for te reo Māori, it's just not as accessible as we would like it to be,” she tells Shannon Haunui-Thomspon of Radio New Zealand. “I think Disney are going to be quite surprised because there is a market that they have never ever explored."

A DVD version of the translated film is slated for release in November, which means Maori-speaking children can enjoy Moana on repeat, long past Maori Language Week.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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