“A successful translation is not the same thing as an exact translation,” Dr. Keao NeSmith says.
And he should know.
So far, NeSmith has translated 15 works of Western literature from English into Hawaiian and is currently working on number 16.
NeSmith, who has a doctorate from the University of Waikato (in Aotearoa) in applied linguistics, translated his first title in 2012. “I was teaching Hawaiian language at UH Mānoa and Michael Everson, an independent publisher, contacted our department to see if anyone was interested in translating Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Hawaiian,” NeSmith said.
Seeing an opportunity, NeSmith volunteered.
“I had just finished my Ph.D. and was looking for a way to establish myself in my field, so that was part of my motivation. But really, it was more for the fun of it.”
The initial translation project was part of an effort to commemorate the book’s 150th anniversary in 2015. First published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s famous story has never been out of print and, to date, has been translated into at least 170 languages.
It was supposed to be just the one book, but after NeSmith completed the translation, he asked Everson, “So are we done?” Everson asked him if he wanted to translate the book’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. NeSmith agreed, and the two have been collaborators ever since.
Born and raised in Kekaha, Kauaʻi, NeSmith said that although his first language is English, “my neighbors were all from Niʻihau.” He shared that there were also several kūpuna in his community who were ʻōlelo kuakahi (native speakers) from Kauaʻi and NeSmith spent a lot of time with them. Surrounded by native speakers, including his own grandmother with whom he lived for a time in Hauʻula, Oʻahu, NeSmith acquired the language organically.
His upbringing within a Hawaiian linguistic community has enabled NeSmith to take stories with complicated text and fanciful ideas expressed using English idioms and cultural references and retell them in Hawaiian.
“I’m relying on all of my lifetime experience,” he explained. “I could not have done this without having lived with actual native speakers. It is impossible to do this kind of work without having already experienced all levels of emotion, joy and contention, as a full participant within that linguistic community.”
In addition to the two “Alice” books, NeSmith’s published translations include The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, The Little Prince, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. He has also completed translations of all seven books in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series, which will be published soon. And he is currently working on the fifth book in the Harry Potter series. Although the first Harry Potter book has already been published, NeSmith said they will wait until translation of the entire series is complete before publishing the rest of the books.
Translating popular Western literature into Hawaiian has become a passion project for NeSmith who is not paid for his work. It’s a pau hana pastime for him. Rather than relaxing after work, kicking up his feet and watching television as most people do, NeSmith spends an hour or two most evenings working on his translations. “Some people enjoy crossword puzzles or Sudoku,” he quipped. “I call this ‘mental jungle gym’ and I enjoy the challenge.”
Citing this example from The Hobbit, “ʻGreat Elephants!’ said Gandalf, ‘you are not at all yourself this morning – you have never dusted the mantel-piece!’” NeSmith notes that the challenge is not finding the right nouns, verbs or grammatical patterns, but finding ways to translate excitement, disappointment, anxiety, humor or puns expressed in English in a way that makes sense in Hawaiian.
Another challenge is creating new words. NeSmith said that while creating new words is a lot of fun, he doesnʻt want to create new terms that are so far out in left field that a native speaker would never understand the meaning because the word is just too foreign.
“I try to create terms that are reachable so you have a chance of getting what it means,” he said. “The example that comes to mind is the word ʻremeberall’ from Harry Potter. It’s a ball that helps you remember. Remember plus ball, so ‘rememberall.’ It was clever.
“I had to think about the two concepts and the new word I settled on was ‘kinipoinaʻole.’ Kinipōpō is ball. Kini (or kinikini) is marbles and poina ʻole means unforgettable. Kini – easy. Poina – easy. Poina ʻole – easy. I love that ʻkinipoinaʻole’ is multi-dimensional the way ʻrememberall’ is multi-dimensional. That isn’t always possible, but sometimes we score a major pun hit.”
If a suitable Hawaiian word exists, NeSmith will not create a new one that may not be understood. In the Harry Potter books, for example, Harry encounters a boa constrictor. There is no word in Hawaiian for boa constrictor, but there is a word for snake (naheka or nahesa) which was borrowed from Greek. So that is the word he used. “I’m not going to invent a word and expect readers to understand what I just invented,” he said.
“If the author intended you to laugh, then the Hawaiian should also make you laugh,” he added. “You cannot make someone laugh by creating foreign language, you have to make someone laugh using their language. That’s trickier than inventing new words.”
With plans to begin translating the Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien once the Harry Potter series is pau, NeSmith is clearly in his creative element as an academic and a linguist. “It is exhilarating to leap into a universe that exists only in the mind and articulate it in Hawaiian and then invite others to come along,” he said.
Without a doubt, the body of work NeSmith has been building over the past decade represents a major contribution to the collection of literature available in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. And while his work directly benefits Hawaiian immersion education and the broader ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi speaking community, NeSmith is quick to point out that he is driven by his loyalty to, and aloha for, our poʻe ʻōlelo kuakahi.
“My heart lies with our kūpuna and our Niʻihau people. They are my first priority.” He wants to create a body of literature that Native Hawaiians whose first language is not English can read and enjoy.
“It’s kind of daring for me to think that I should do this. I’m not as competent as a Niʻihau speaker,” NeSmith demurred. “Hawaiian is their first language, it’s their daily universe from the moment they’re born. They are still over there on that side where I wish I could be. I wish I could have had that same universe.”
Regardless, his efforts have been welcomed and joyfully received by native speakers – which has both surprised and delighted NeSmith. “The response has been huge – especially with Harry Potter. I wasn’t prepared for that response, and I was blown away. It caused me to reflect on the meaning of what I had previously considered to just be my own little project and the impact the books had when they were released.”
With many more books awaiting translation into Hawaiian, this body of work will certainly become part of NeSmith’s legacy to our lāhui for future generations of Hawaiian speakers.
“I want to normalize the language of our kūpuna and poʻe Niʻihau. When I engage the text, in my head I hear the chatter of kūpuna and friends of all ages I’ve known all my life who are (or were) native speakers. That makes me smile as I fall asleep at night, and I can’t wait to dream.”
Dr. Keao NeSmith’s translated works can be purchased at www.nativebookshawaii.org or on Amazon.