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‘Ka Hopita’: Hawaiian translation of ‘The Hobbit’ coming soon

Orcs become oaka, and elves turn into mū, as Tolkien’s masterpiece is published in the endangered Polynesian language

Many nights over the last year, Keao NeSmith would return to his home on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and think about hobgoblins. Not because he was afraid of the evil fantasy creature, but because he was translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” into Hawaiian.

"I didn't even know what a hobgoblin is," NeSmith said of the process of becoming more familiar with Tolkien’s world. “We have a generic term that means ‘monster,’ but it’s too general.” 

Eventually he scrapped the search for some match with “goblin” and went with a Hawaiianized form of “orc,” or “’oaka”in which the apostrophe represents a glottal stop — an actual Hawaiian word that refers to the gaping jaws of a dog that’s about to bite. Thus a hobgoblin became nui ’oaka, or "big orc.”

He also had to think how to translate Tolkien’s “Eldar” (“elves” in English), which has no analogue in the Hawaiian tradition. “I didn’t know the difference between Santa’s elves and Keebler’s elves and came to find that Tolkien’s elves are very different,” he said. The closest matches in Hawaiian mythology were forest-dwelling creatures called the mū, but they are unsophisticated creatures who make screechy noises in the mountains. NeSmith decided to adapt the mū, which are like the Eldar in the sense that they’re shy and sing in a haunting way, and added “wao,” or “wilderness.” Now elves are mūwao.

Raised in Kekaha, Kauai, NeSmith spoke mostly English early on. Though Hawaiian was offered at the high school he attended on Oahu, he chose to study Japanese instead. After graduating, he went to live with his maternal grandmother, who only spoke to him in Hawaiian. He picked up a lot of the language, which he also studied at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, where he now teaches the language. He has a Ph.D. in applied linguistics, focusing on teaching language to adult learners. Projects like this one, he hopes, will help save the language from dying out.

He is a speaker of what he calls “neo-Hawaiian,” a dialect that arose among people who learn the language as a second language. It has different pronunciations, fewer idioms, and is written differently than traditional Hawaiian. NeSmith estimates that there are only about 300 people left who learned the traditional variety in childhood and continue to speak it. But there are between 3 and 4,000 younger people who have attended Hawaiian immersion elementary schools founded in the 1980s and are able to carry on a conversation and read materials in Hawaiian. “Ka Hopita,” he says, is for them. 

‘I didn’t know the difference between Santa’s elves and Keebler’s elves and came to find that Tolkien’s elves are very different.’

Keao NeSmith

translator of ‘The Hobbit’

The Hawaiian language had been widely used until the late 19th century, when the U.S. annexed the Hawaiian kingdom and English was forcibly imposed in 1896. Literacy in Hawaiian had once been robust but under new laws outlawing the language, it dwindled; the last Hawaiian-language newspaper closed in 1948.

Now, Hawaiian is one of the most endangered of the Polynesian languages. It’s hoped that “Ka Hopita” will legitimize Hawaiian as an everyday language and boost the efforts of a new generation of Hawaiian speakers. “Ka Hopita,” which is set to be published on March 25 (a date important to Tolkien fans because it’s the day that Bilbo Baggins came home from his adventures), is the first Tolkien novel to appear in an indigenous language of the United States.

“Being able to pick up “The Hobbit” in Hawaiian is something they will be able to do as part of the process of becoming a native speaker,” NeSmith said. Even if they can’t read it now, they will be able to eventually.

And even if the current size of the market for the book isn’t large, translating it for the future is a very Hawaiian thing to do. “He’s creating something that’s going to be passed down for future generations,” said David DeLuca, executive director of Bess Press, a Honolulu-based publisher of books about Hawaii, including Hawaiian dictionaries, phrase books and children’s books.

The translation also increases the prestige of the Hawaiian language because it shows that “Hawaiian isn’t just limited to Hawaiian stories or biographies of Hawaiian monarchs. He’s opening the door for others to come forward and take Hawaiian beyond Hawaii,” DeLuca said. That the book is a work of fantasy “goes against the brand, which is great,” he added. “Who else has done this?”

“What I feel like Keao’s modern translation of “The Hobbit” does is show the versatility and continuing relevance of Hawaiian because it demonstrates that Hawaiian can describe a world completely different than ours,” said fellow translator Bryan Kuwada.

NeSmith became a literary translator in 2012 when a university receptionist passed on an email requesting someone to translate “Alice in Wonderland.” That message was sent by Michael Everson, an American-born naturalized Irish citizen living in Dublin who has made a name for himself championing literacy in dozens of minority languages. For him, publishing “The Hobbit” in any language has a deep personal meaning, because that book set him on his life’s work as a font designer and typesetter.

"If I hadn't read ‘The Hobbit’ when I was 13," he says, "I wouldn't be who I am or doing what I'm doing."

Everson researches exotic forms of writing languages and writes proposals to include them in Unicode, the international standard for encoding of characters for computers and mobile devices. Through Evertype, his publishing company, he has published dozens of books in Cornish, Irish, Esperanto, Scots and other languages, including books by Isaac Asimov, Lewis Carroll (he has published “Alice in Wonderland” in over 30 languages, including Irish, Hungarian, Manx, and Zulu), Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle. A version of “The Hobbit” in Cherokee is also in the pipeline. 

‘What I feel like Keao’s modern translation of ‘The Hobbit’ does is show the versatility and continuing relevance of Hawaiian, because it demonstrates that Hawaiian can describe a world completely different than ours.’

Bryan Kuwada

Hawaiian translator

While translations like “The Hobbit” can be symbolically meaningful for a community and economically attractive for publishers (because collectors and libraries purchase them), their impact on the life of the language itself is an open question. Conor Quinn, a documentary linguist who works with communities in Maine that speak Penobscot and Passamaquoddy-Maliseet, two endangered languages, says that the impact depends on how much literacy exists in the community. “If you have a thriving community of speakers in an immersion school, then a book like “The Hobbit” is likely to be a helpful addition to their experience as readers,” Quinn said. “If you have second language learners, a book can provide a powerful challenge.”

Dubbing movies into endangered languages has had a big impact in communities where people don’t commonly read or write their language every day. In the 1990s, the Disney movie “Bambi” was dubbed in Arapaho, which “had a tremendous local impact on the community, as young children repeatedly watched the video and memorized the dialogue,” said Lisa Conathan, an archivist at Yale’s Beineke Library. Bollywood films have been dubbed in Hmong, and a Navajo dub of “Star Wars” was released in 2014.

“Anything that increases the motivation of people to read a book or watch a movie and therefore learn more of the language is a positive thing,” said Leanne Hinton, a professor emerita of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley who has long worked to reconnect indigenous communities in California with their languages. “The very fact that “The Hobbit” is so famous in English probably increases the interest of students and other Hawaiians in reading the Hawaiian version.”

“We are a few generations into the language revitalization that grew out of the Hawaiian Renaissance,” said Kuwada, “but there hasn’t always been time to do the fun stuff.” Though the language is challenging, the book is entertaining, which Hawaiian needs.

With his translations NeSmith joins a long tradition of Hawaiian literary translators dating to the 1800s, when Hawaiian newspapers serialized English novels such as Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” By 1900, one of the traditions among translators was to not Hawaiianize foreign names.

NeSmith followed that tradition, which made translating the name of ka hopita himself, “Bilbo Baggins,” quite easy. It’s just “Bilbo Baggins.”

Excerpt from Ka Hopita

[English version below, with Hawaiian translation at right]

Hurriedly Bilbo stepped back and blessed the luck of his ring. Then Smaug spoke.
“Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!”
But Bilbo was not quite so unlearned in dragon-lore as all that, and if Smaug hoped to get him to come nearer so easily he was disappointed.
“No thank you, O Smaug the. Tremendous!” he replied. “I did not come for presents. I only wished to have a look at you and see if you were truly as great as tales say. I did not believe them.”
“Do you now?” said the dragon somewhat flattered, even though he did not believe a word of it.
“Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of the reality, O Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities,” replied Bilbo.
You have nice manners for a thief and a liar,” said the dragon. “You seem familiar with my name, but I don’t seem to remember smelling you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”
“You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.”
“So I can well believe,” said Smaug, “but that is hardly our usual name.”
“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I was chosen for the lucky number.”
“Lovely titles!” sneered the dragon. “But lucky numbers don’t always come off.”
“I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.”
“These don’t sound so creditable,” scoffed Smaug.
“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider,” went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.
“That’s better!” said Smaug. “But don’t let your imagination run away with you!”

Kuemi hikiwawe ihola ’o Bilbo a mahalo akula i kona pōmaika’i i ka loa’a o kona komo. A laila, ’ōlelo maila ’o Smaug.

“’Ā, no laila, e ka ’aihue! Honi wau iā ’oe a pā maila kou ea. Lohe au i kou hanu ’ana. Mai! E ki’i hou mai i kāu makana, ua nui ’ino nō!”

Akā na’e, ’a’ole nō i na’aupō loa ’o Bilbo i ka mo’olelo o nā kelakona me kēlā, a inā i makemake ’o Smaug e ho’owalewale iā ia e ho’okokoke wale mai, ua nui kona pohō.

“’A’ole, mahalo, e Smaug, ka Mea Nui!” wahi āna i pane ai. “’A’ole au i hele mai nei i makana. ’O ka’u mea ho’okahi wale nō i makemake ai, ’o ia ka nānā ’ana iā ’oe e ’ike ai inā ua nui nō ’oe e like me ia ma nā mo’olelo. ’A’ole au i hilina’i.”

“Pehea i kēia manawa?” wahi a ke kelakona ma ke ’ano mahalo iki, me kona hilina’i ’ole iki nō na’e.

“Ua ho’ohewahewa maoli nō nā mele me nā mo’olelo i ka ’oia’i’o, e Smaug, e ka Po’okela a me ka Haku o ka Luku ’ana,” i pane ai ’o Bilbo.

“He ’olu’olu maoli nō kāu ’ōlelo, ma kou ’ao’ao he ’aihue a he ho’opunipuni,” wahi a ke kelakona. “Me he mea lā ua kama’āina ’oe i ko’u inoa, akā, ’a’ole au ho’omaopopo i ka honi ’ana iā ’oe ma mua. ’O wai ’oe a no hea mai ’oe, ke ’olu’olu?”

“No lalo wau o ka pu’u, a no lalo ho’i o nā pu’u a no luna ho’i o nā pu’u i hele mai nei ko’u ka’ahele ’ana. A i loko nō o ka lewa, ’o wau nō ia e ka’ahele nei me ka ’ike ’ole ’ia mai.”

“’Ā, pēlā ko’u hilina’i,” wahi a Smaug, “akā, ’a’ole nō kēlā he inoa ma’amau.”

“’O wau ka mea ’imi ā loa’a nā meheu, ka mea nāna ’oki aku i ka pūnāwelewele, ka nalo nāna e kiki. Ua wae ’ia mai au no ka helu laki.”

“’Ā, nani kēia mau inoa!” i ’aka pāhenehene ai ke kelakona. “Akā, ’a’ohe puka pono o nā helu laki i nā manawa a pau.”

“’O wau nō ka mea nāna e kanu ola i nā hoaloha a ho’opiholo iā lākou a huki hou iā lākou mai loko mai o ka wai. No ka ’ōpū mai wau o kekahi ’eke, akā, ’a’ohe na’e ’eke nāna i uhi mai ia’u.”

“’A’ole nō ia he mea e kaena ai,” i ’aka pāhenehene hou ai ’o Smaug.

“’O wau ka hoaloha o nā pea a me ka mea kipa i nā ’aeto. ’O wau nei ’o Ka Mea Komo a me Ka Mea Laki; a ’o wau ’o Ka Mea Kau Palela,” a pēlā i ho’omau ai ’o Bilbo me ka ho’omaka pū e hau’oli i kona nane ’ana.

“’Ā, e aho kēlā!” wahi a Smaug. “Akā, mai ho’olalau i kou no’ono’o ’ana, ’eā!”

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