Translating “The Hobbit” into Hawaiian

For being one of the most volcanic places on Earth with its own counterparts to Mount Ka HopitaDoom (though nothing to say of dragons), it is perhaps surprising that J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous children’s book “The Hobbit” has not been brought to Hawaiian sooner.

Keao NeSmith toiled long to translate the tome into Hawaiian, which is big news in the United States and Hawai’i; along with English, Hawaiian is the official tongue of the island state, and continuing a literary tradition in this dwindling language is of great importance. This is the first time that the book has appeared in an indigenous language of the United States.

NeSmith worked to translate “The Hobbit” into “neo-Hawaiian,” which is generally spoken by the young generation in Hawai’i. There is an estimate that there are fewer than 300 speakers of traditional Hawaiian alive, so working to save the language in a new form is crucial in the state.

The translation itself has posed a number of difficulties for NeSmith, which are not just linguistic but cultural. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, he explained the difficulties of coining a Hawaiian term for Tolkien’s elves. According to the news site, “’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.”

Evertype, the press publishing Ka Hopita, works to bring literature to endangered languages across the globe. They have published Alice in Wonderland, for example, into more than 30 languages including Scots, Esperanto, Old English, and Tongan (another Polynesian language). There is also a version of The Hobbit in Cherokee in the works, to broaden the reach of the book further into the scene of the United States’ indigenous languages and literature.

There are hopes that this translation of Ka Hopita, which will bring a necessary element of fun to neo-Hawaiian learners, will help to save the endangered language. The full article from Al-Jazeera is here, and you can find a link to buy the book from Amazon here.

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