Home / Arts & Life / In New Zealand, a Translated ‘Moana’ Bolsters an Indigenous Language

In New Zealand, a Translated ‘Moana’ Bolsters an Indigenous Language

“Moana” — the story of the Polynesian princess, Moana, on an adventure with her chicken Heihei and the demigod Maui — has already netted Disney awards, critical acclaim, and box office revenue of $643 million worldwide.


The characters Moana and Maui from the animated Disney film “Moana.”

Disney, via Associated Press

It also provoked debate about whether the story was culturally sensitive to the people, including Maori, whose mythologies are included in the story. The filmmakers have said that they did extensive research throughout the Pacific to ensure the story’s authenticity.

Taika Waititi, a New Zealand writer and director who worked on the original English-language version of “Moana,” also approached Disney early on about translating the film, and his sister, Tweedie Waititi, went on to produce the translated version.

The film screened for free at 30 theaters around New Zealand at the end of the annual Maori language week. It did not have English subtitles, but screenings sold out within 30 minutes, leading to plans in at least one town for additional showings.

Many of those attending in Manukau, in southern Auckland, said they had never seen a film at the theater entirely in their language before.

Several of the families there came from nearby Manurewa, a district usually in the news for unemployment, homelessness and poverty. Parents entering the theater said they relished the chance for their children to see themselves and their language reflected on the big screen; a different kind of story that they hoped would instill pride in being Maori.

And it seemed to work. Jay-Dean Knox-Cassidy and Phoenix-Nevaeh Durham-Gray, both 10 (and cousins), were among the first to arrive. They had learned the language at kohanga reo, immersion preschools, and still spoke it sometimes at home.

In line, they spotted a few of their preschool teachers, including Lillian Shelford, who said that many of the children there were former students. She said that when she started working at the preschool in 1994, she did not speak the language herself and was embarrassed and shy about trying. Like many Maori of the baby boomer generation, she had been discouraged from speaking it when she was younger.

It is a common story in New Zealand. Mr. Piripi, 60, the former head of New Zealand’s Maori Language Commission, said the loss of native language and culture began in earnest after the British missionary Samuel Marsden began preaching Christianity in New Zealand in 1814.

In 1840, Maori leaders and representatives of the British crown signed the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of New Zealand. It was intended to bring the two parties together in New Zealand, but breaches of it and inconsistencies in translation have caused conflict.

Maori and Pacific Island people in New Zealand now face worse social, economic, and health outcomes than Pakeha, or New Zealanders of European descent.


“The language has got to be made cool and sexy and relevant to young people, and this movie is the perfect way to make that happen,” said Haami Piripi, a former head of the government body charged with the promotion of te reo Māori as a living language.

Birgit Krippner for The New York Times

Mr. Piripi said he was proud of the efforts to increase the status of the native language and culture but worried it was too little, too late. He said that many parents had lost confidence in immersion schooling, worrying that their children would miss out on the benefits of mainstream education, “even though statistics tell us that children do better” in native-language classrooms.

He argued for a more methodical and strategic approach.

“Language is the expression of a culture and a race of people,” he said. “To retain your language is an emblem of survival through history,” he said. “If you’ve still got your language now, you have the key to your culture.”

Most of the efforts to revitalize the language that had worked so far, he added, had been initiated by protest or court action. But Mr. Piripi said the film “Moana reo Māori” had given him hope there was another way: making the language “cool, relevant and useful” to young Maori.

“There’s no other film in the Maori language that would attract whanau and kids like that,” he said, using the word for families.

The entire process, including translation, recording the voices and mixing the sound, happened over three months.

Katarina Edmonds, a senior lecturer in Maori education at the University of Auckland, and one of three people who translated the film, said the team worked not only to find the exact equivalents of words in the Disney script, but also to remain true to the Maori language and tikanga, or cultural values.

Some moments of the film posed a challenge; Moana raging at the ocean, for example, contravened a Maori cultural rule to never curse or turn one’s back on the sea, so they turned it into a more humorous moment using careful wordplay.

At the same time, Ms. Edmonds said, the translation gave the film a uniquely Maori flavor of humor, while staying true to the spirit of the original script.

Rachel House, a New Zealand actor who voiced the character of Gramma Tala in both the English and Maori versions of the film — and who was also the performance director of the Maori production — said she had been blown away by the response to the film, and the 30 theaters that screened it for free.

“I’ve been on a very slow journey with the language for years, and now I feel like I can sit back and really enjoy the film, and experience the learning tool that it represents,” she said.

In Manukau, most families left the theater beaming. Many said they were eager to buy a DVD of the film, which is expected sometime in the next few months.

Desiree Tipene, 30, said that having grown up with immersion schooling, she was determined to give her children a similar experience — for a sense of identity and spiritual connection. She described “Moana” as a “funny and beautiful” way for her four children to connect with their culture.

“I just enjoy our language being spoken,” she said.

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