Vaughan Rapatahana: Te moana reo

Mar 2023 | Small craft

This year (2023), AT THE BAY | I TE KOKORU will see the publication of an anthology with ‘languages of Aotearoa’ as the theme. With more than 80 contributors, this anthology speaks widely to the diverse experiences and histories and languages of Aotearoa New Zealand in the 21st century. Here, editor Vaughan Rapatahana writes from a behind-the-scenes view on this forthcoming book.


Why the need for the forthcoming anthology of microfictions written in different languages?

There are two official languages in Aotearoa New Zealand: te reo Māori and New Zealand  Sign Language. English is a de facto official tongue only and has never been designated an official language de jure. However, in our increasingly multicultural and multilingual society, where the non-European population is not increasing as rapidly as our Pasifika, Māori and Asian population, there are many other languages exponentially being spoken in this country. Among them are Samoan, Hindi, Mandarin, Tagalog, French, German, Tongan, Afrikaans, Korean, Cook Island Māori, Cantonese, Japanese, Gujarati, Punjabi, Arabic, Italian, Thai, Tamil, Dutch, Malayalam, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Fijian, Persian, Indonesian, Marathi, Serbo-Croatian, Telugu, Sinhala, Ukranian…the list continues for quite some space. There is, then, a veritable ocean of languages in this country, Te Moana Reo.

A key point regarding our individual languages is so cogently expressed in the following whakataukī: ‘Ko taku reo, ko taku ohooho, ko taku reo māpihi mauria’. Which translates into English, approximately, as ‘My language, my awakening, my language is the window to my soul’.

Each and every language is unique, and uniquely contains the kernel of a given culture, this being all the more reason to represent as many Aotearoa New Zealand tongues as possible, as each denotes a distinctive cultural nexus and the array of singular nuances within it.

More than this, I maintain the position that no one language can ever be completely translated into another one. Even as writers and readers alike encourage translations for accessibility’s sake, one language can never sufficiently translate the essential cultural nuances contained in a different tongue, and as such, this is a further factor in our exemplifying as many different languages as possible. Different languages create different worlds. As Ludwig Wittgesnstein postulated via his term ‘incommensurability’ in 1953, ‘one must always understand the cultural context in order to understand the meaning of a given word in a given language’.

Similarly, according to Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1986), ‘the choice of a language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to their entire universe’. Which leads to a further rationale for assembling as many languages spoken in this country as possible – namely, that if an individual, a group, an iwi is compelled to speak and to write a language that is not their indigenous tongue, there is potential for people to become alienated, to take on the values which are inherent in another language, values that are not their own. I have, for example, long been a critic of the dominant, often domineering English language and its capacity to sublimate and even to obliterate other languages, and have instigated and co-edited books on this topic (English language as Hydra, 2012, and Why English? Confronting the Hydra, 2016). In the first volume I co-wrote a chapter with Graham Hingangaroa Smith entitled ‘English Language as Nemesis for Māori’, because that was and to an extent remains, the historically unbalanced relationship between the two reo.

All the more reason, then, to present these varied and various stand-alone New Zealand languages, and all the more reason to present them via the genre of microfiction, whereby as many as possible can be collated in one volume – as opposed to fewer lengthy pieces. Even more significantly, they can be presented as cogent microcosmic exemplars of the sacrosanct languages they have been penned in.

No language is a clearcut, static bounded entity (Alastair Pennycook has stated this in his many writings). All languages are living and subject to growth (and diminishment if subjugated or infiltrated by other languages). Accordingly, there is considerable room in this undertaking for translingual spoken and written expression, not as a code-switching enterprise by a resolute monolingualist sitting at a desk religiously referencing a dictionary here and there, but as a fluent form of expression by a bi- or multi-lingual speaker precisely because they find it easier, more eloquently indicative, to speak and write in more than one tongue at the same time or in the same piece – that is,  simultaneously. A vivid example of translingualism is often when Filipino talk to one another and there is a potent mix of both Tagalog and English – and sometimes Spanish – interchangingly across a page, across a stage. I witness this both in my own home and when back in Philippines.

Accordingly, the forthcoming anthology from At the Bay | I te Kokoru will also include several translingual pieces, specifically written by speakers of more than one language, but perhaps not fully fluent in one or both, who choose to express themselves more colourfully and meaningfully by interplaying, interconnecting two or more languages, rather than via a more monochromatic monolingual approach. In this latter translingual category, then, New Zealand languages are not being suppressed or stultified, but encouraged to grow and flourish – one of the central aims of this exciting and naturally expressive anthology.

Tēnā koutou katoa.

Vaughan Rapatahana

This anthology is forthcoming in 2024 from The Cuba Press.

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