Award recipients at the I Ulu I Ke Kumu Awards Dinner. Front row: Nahulu Maioho, Hilina‘i Sai-Dudoit, Kalei Kawa‘a Roberts, Kalehua Kawa‘a; 2nd row: Ioane Goodhue, Kawena Komeiji, Kau‘i Sai-Dudoit, Pili Kamakea-Young and Hina Kneubuhl; 3rd row: Ha‘alilio Williams-Solomon, Kilohana Roberts,Kamuela Yim, Aunty Lolena Nicols, Puakea Nogelmeier, Jon Yasuda; Back row: Dave Graham, Lihauanu Maioho. - Photo: Courtesy

Awaiaulu brings history to life with the only translation trainer program in Hawai‘i

Language holds the key to a culture, and also to its survival, says the Hawaiian proverb “I ka ‘ōlelo nō ke ola, i ka ‘ōlelo nō ka make,” which translates to, “Life is in the language, and death is in the language.” So when Hawaiian language texts from a century ago read like Greek to even today’s fluent speakers, this forced disconnection keeps a lot of culture-defining wisdom just out of reach.

Puakea Nogelmeier, Ph.D., the first full professor of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, is leveraging 40 years of translation experience to build a bridge from the writings of yesterday to contemporary times. His organization Awaiaulu is making ancient works accessible – not just by building resources of translated materials, but also by growing a cadre of “resource people” who can pass on the skills of translation to the next generation. “A small number of trained experts could provide an entire generation with access to every field, from culture to science to immersion education,” he says. “We’re inventing a new wheel in a way.”

In 2003, Nogelmeier’s “Aha!” moment came while reading his doctoral dissertation to Dwayne Steele, his student and a top-ranked businessman who spoke Hawaiian. The draft talked about how the native language writings in Hawai‘i had been eclipsed for a century, with only a fraction
incorporated into modern knowledge. Says Nogelmeier, “He looked at me and said, ‘It’s not about language, it’s about knowledge. We’ve got to make these available in English… and you can make translators!’” A long-time champion of Hawaiian language efforts, Steele offered to pay Nogelmeier’s salary for a year if he took a break from teaching to run with the idea, plus a stipend for two trainees. “In a way, translation to English was almost the enemy, since the push back then was to get everyone speaking Hawaiian,” says Nogelmeier. “There hadn’t been any translators since Mary Kawena Pukui.”

On January 1, 2004, the professor’s full-timejob became sitting with trainees and teaching them the nuances of translation. After a year, Awaiaulu’s inaugural team finished The Epic Tale of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele, marking the first time this 400-page text had ever been translated into English – and the first project forged fromthe translator training process. Awaiaulu self published the book, distributed it to bookstores throughout Hawai‘i and had 300 copies handbound in gold leather, 100 of which were sold for $1,500 each, and the rest donated to libraries around the world. Says Nogelmeier, “If someone came to Oxford or Tokyo University and asked for Hawaiian literature, they would be shown the most beautiful book they’d ever seen. We took pride making it available.”

Photo: Puakea Nogelmeier
Puakea Nogelmeier

Awaiaulu started with two translators-in-trainingand was able to stand on its own as a 501(c)(3) in 2009. A new pair of trainees began with Dr. Nogelmeier in 2013, who then became trainers and took on two trainees each. Today there are nine translator trainees, with the original two now serving as mentors. Since they span four islands, much of the work is done over Skype. One group has taken on what is tentatively titled Ke Kahu, the final writings in Samuel Kamakau’s serial history columns. Another team is tackling the writings of John Papa ‘Ī‘ī, which include many first-person historical accounts. The organization also recently translated the hit film “Moana” into Hawaiian.

Nogelmeier’s teams help shepherd a parallel translation project that makes Hawaiian newspaper pages, letters and manuscripts available in English online. Last year, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs funded a research trip to the East Coast, stopping at places like Harvard University, The Library of Congress and The Smithsonian in search of Hawaiian materials. “You don’t know which one is going to be an absolute pearl,” says Nogelmeier. “A single issue could have a statement from one of the kings, or a description of a cultural practice documented nowhere else.” Last August, Awaiaulu was awarded an OHA grant in support of their next two years of training and production. If all goes well over the nonprofit’s six-year plan, by July 2019, they will have 15 fully trained translators working on texts and teaching.

Before Awaiaulu, Dr. Nogelmeier saw firsthand how the translation of old Hawaiian writings was about English access to data, with little concern for preserving their integrity. “We’re trying to reconnect those originals into the world view now. It’s not like these Hawaiian documents change history, but history was written without them,” he says with a hint of ire. “How could you write a history of Colorado, for instance, without talking to the people who live there?”

Hard copies of completed texts and a list of works in progress are available through