Image of two fishermen with outrigger canoes, Waikiki beach, Oahu Island, c. 1922. Source: Wikimedia.

The Institute of Hawaiian Language Research and Translation (Ke Keʻena Noiʻi A Unuhi ʻŌlelo) at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa has launched a new research program, working with the archives of Hawaiian-language newspapers.

The program, entitled Ka Wā Ma Mua, Ka Wā Ma Hope (Using the Past to Inform the Future: English Translation of Hawaiian Language Newspaper Accounts of Unusual Weather Events), part of the Hawaiian Language Newspaper Translation Project, was funded in 2015 through UH Sea Grant via the NOAA Preserve America Initiative program.

As reported by Hawaiian Public Radio, “The largest source comes from more than 100 different Hawaiian language newspapers published until the late 1940s. Of those, only a small portion have been translated into English, and remain an untapped source of information into Hawai’i’s past.” The last Hawaiian-language newspaper, Ka Hoku o Hawaii, was shuttered in 1948, as noted in a paper by UH Mānoa’s Richard Keao Nesmith.

Hawaiian stands at a crossroads. As noted on Ethnologue, “Young speakers are being trained in immersion courses and also very old speakers exist, but relatively few adult and middle-aged speakers, which results in lack of communication situations for active use.” This younger population is comprised of tens of thousands schooled in Hawaiian studies that date back to 1980, and immersion programs begun in 1986. The number of traditional native speakers has dwindled with time, to just a few thousand, with many now being in their 70s or 80s.

In his paper, Nesmith dubbed the former community the Neo Hawaiian Community, (NEO), and the latter the Traditional (TRAD) community. The differences aren’t just in the vocabulary, or the grammar or dialect. They have to do with the corpus of culture. Nesmith observed, “While most Hawaiians of my grandparents’ generation were fluent native speakers who could recall accounts of Hawaiian heroes, genealogies, chants, and old songs, most of my mother’s generation know virtually nothing of these things, and thus cannot pass them on to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, even if they want to.”

UH’s collection of newspapers will not restore such collective mythology, but it does bridge the gap between earlier generations and the current ones.

Such native-language news sources are fixed in the crossroads of time. The first Hawaiian-language newspapers were published in 1834 in what was then the independent Kingdom of Hawai’i by missionaries working with the local population. Local literacy and linguistic study of Hawaiian flourished thereafter to the end of the 19th Century.

However, education in Hawaiian was formally banned after the overthrow of the Kingdom, by the 1896 Laws of the Republic of Hawai’i, in a section of law known as Act 57. Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, until the shuttering of the last Hawai’ian newspaper in 1948, literacy in Hawai’ian receded like a wave, stigmatized by the successive dominant English-language American-culture governments of the archipelago.

These newspapers thus represent a major corpus of culture prior to the modern era, before Hawaiian studies were legally and formally resumed. The NOAA grant is specifically geared to using these primary sources to understand historical perspectives on the Hawaiian environment and fishing practices, both local/indigenous, as well as those introduced to the Hawaiian community. The website displays the original article side-by-side with an English-language translation.

Weather events can be searched based on keyword categories, such as “storm,” “calm,” “lightning” or “thunder,” “cold” or “hot.” There are also ways to search articles related to geology, celestial events, and, also of primary interest to the NOAA, fishing.

For example, an article from 28 April 1838, entitled Na Nai Ma Kahana is translated as “The Dolphins at Kahana.” Its 29 typeset lines, which originally appeared in the newspaper Ke Kuma Hawaii, describe how the villagers of Makaua, from the strongest man to the weakest child, paddled canoes out into the ocean at Kahana Bay off the island of Oahu one afternoon to hunt dolphins. The catch of hundreds of the creatures fed the people, as well as their pigs and dogs, and also provided copious amounts of oil for lamps. The reporter signed their eyewitness account simply, “By me, NAILI.”

From such eyewitness accounts, researchers of different disciplines can identify a variety of information. Not least of which would be anecdotal evidence for marine biologists of sea life depletion over time. For perspective, in 1838, the villagers of Makaua killed over 200 dolphins in one afternoon alone. Today, there are three types of dolphins that inhabit the Hawaiian Islands. Of those, there exist only approximately 3,350 spinner dolphins, 3,200 bottlenose dolphins, and 10,260 spotted dolphins, for a total estimated population of 16,810. That afternoon’s catch, if it were held today, would represent more than 1% of the remaining dolphin population of the islands.

Have you ever had a translation project that was more than what it seemed at first? One that expanded profoundly beyond pure linguistics to cultural, scientific, historical, even political dimensions? Maybe you even have one facing you right now. We’d love to hear more! Send us your thoughts, feedback, and current objectives to [email protected].