As a member of the NZSTI Conference organising committee, I recently met up with Wīremu Haunui for a nice kōrero (chat). He is the Māori interpreter in Parliament, and will be talking to Conference guests attending a Beehive tour on Friday 26 June. The article below was published on the Conference’s website.

One of the activities offered during the NZSTI Conference weekend is a guided tour of Parliament, on Friday 26 June at 9:30am (click here for more details). The current Parliamentary Te Kaiwhakahaere o Ngā Rātonga Reo Māori, Wīremu Haunui, kindly offered to take the tour group behind the scenes to show and talk about the interpreters’ studio for the House and the one for Maui Tikitiki-a-Taranga, show the former Māori Affairs Committee Room, Matangireia and give a brief talk on Ngā Ratonga Reo Māori in Māui Tikitiki-a-Taranga.

Growing up in the eastern Bay of Plenty in the early 1950s, Wīremu was raised in Te Reo Māori. It was only when he started going to school that he began learning English – as a second language. His linguistic abilities would set him up for the professions he embraced, as a language teacher and eventually a translator and interpreter.

Qualified as a primary school teacher, one thing leading to another, he taught Te Reo Māori at secondary school level. While he got an interpreter’s licence in 1972, there wasn’t a great demand for interpreting services in the eastern Bay of Plenty at the time. It wasn’t until he and his wife moved to the Wairarapa some 25 years ago that he decided to focus his career on translation and interpretation.

He worked for a time for the New Zealand Translation Centre in Wellington from 1989 to 1991, alongside John Jamieson and Patrick King, to gain experience in translation and editing techniques. Parliament approached NZTC to enquire whether they had a Māori interpreter. Wīremu was sent to sit down for a kōrero, and ‘that was the beginning of getting into contact with Parliament’. He became a full-time, permanent employee of Parliament when the position of Māori interpreter was created in 2004.

Up until then, Te Reo Māori services which include interpreting, translating, transcribing, editing as well as verbal proofreading for the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, had always been contracted out. The unit has maintained this practice, and currently has four contractors who help manage the workload. The unit Ngā Ratonga Reo Māori was formalised and now sits under House Services as a strategic move in the event the amount of Māori spoken in the House increases – it has done so significantly, in particular with the arrival of members of Parliament from the Māori Party.

‘Now, I don’t want to give the impression that Māori is spoken every time the House sit’, he says. ‘If there’s a bill in the House with a great Māori interest, then we can predict that Māori will be spoken.’ With the introduction of simultaneous interpreting into the House, MPs slip in and out of Māori, which makes the need for interpreting services highly unpredictable. ‘And it isn’t only Māori members doing that,’ he continues. ‘We also have non-Māori who have an affinity with the language. One of the current assistant speakers always tries to use Te Reo when he is presiding speaker… Always expect the unexpected is our adage!’

What was his most memorable experience in Parliament so far? ‘Initially,’ he replied, ‘we all have had such a moment. When we switched from sequential to simultaneous interpretation we would get a phone call because no-one could hear us: we had forgotten to press the on-air button.’ And before simultaneous interpreting was introduced, interpreters would sit in the House and interpret sequentially. MPs were expected to pause to allow an interpretation but that didn’t always happen.

Wīremu remembers a certain Member of Parliament who was always very difficult to interpret. ‘One time, he stood up, and rattled on and on, and wandered off in his speech, while I was waiting for him to stop. When he finally stopped and looked at me for an interpretation, I provided a summary of what he had said. It was much shorter, and so he got a fright, and probably thought it should have been longer… Everyone was roaring in laughter in the House.’