A former Māori language commissioner is defending a te reo baggage claim sign which has been bringing mirth to users of the newly opened Kerikeri airport terminal.

The $4.75m Bay of Islands Airport terminal, opened on Friday by Regional Development Minister Shane Jones and Far North Mayor John Carter, features spacious departure and arrival areas, a separate baggage claim area and bilingual signage.

The translation of the baggage claim sign, however, has caused great amusement on social media and to some airport users because "pēke kokoraho" can also be translated as ball-bag or scrotum.

Haami Piripi, a former Māori language commissioner who is now the chairman of Te Rūnanga o Te Rarawa, said the controversy highlighted differing approaches to translation.

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This sign at the newly opened Bay of Islands Airport terminal has been amusing speakers of te reo. Photo / supplied
This sign at the newly opened Bay of Islands Airport terminal has been amusing speakers of te reo. Photo / supplied

A translator could opt for a practical, literal translation or, as in this case, something more metaphorical and creative.

''That's part of the unique dialect of tangata whenua and their choice of metaphor and whakataukī (proverb). It's descriptive and a bit eccentric, but I don't find it offensive.

"The translator has deliberately applied a term that will be highly noticed and remembered by airport clientele. I think it's fantastic,'' Piripi said.

An unimaginative translation for baggage claim would be "wāhi tiki pēke" (literally "place to fetch bags"). The term used at the airport could also be interpreted as testicular sack.

Piripi said the Ngāti Rehia translator was a tohunga (expert) whose cultural and linguistic abilities he wouldn't question.

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones and Labour list MP Willow-Jean Prime lead a delegation arriving to open Kerikeri's new airport terminal. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones and Labour list MP Willow-Jean Prime lead a delegation arriving to open Kerikeri's new airport terminal. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Airport manager Stan Hansen said the controversy was a lesson about the way languages evolved.

"It's a balls-up which is being put right. We did consult with tangata whenua over the translation but obviously not widely or thoroughly enough ... Now we hope that people can move on and enjoy using their smart new multilingual airport — delivered on time, to budget and to almost universal acclaim."

Some social media users have suggested the airport operator must have used Google Translate for the signs.

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That is, however, not the case. Google's failed attempt at translating "baggage claim" is "nama kerēme".

Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Illustration / Rod Emmerson