Story by David Thompson
Photo by Jack Wolford
Luahiwa Namahoe opened her Apple laptop one recent morning, went to Google and couldn’t believe her eyes. The Google logo and barebones layout looked familiar, but the text had gone crazy. The Directory had become Papa Kuhikuhi. Groups were Na Pu‘ulu Kukakuka. The Google Search button had turned into the Huli ia Google button. Google was interfacing with Namahoe in Hawaiian. A prime suspect leapt to mind, and Namahoe—a longtime advocate of the Hawaiian language—jumped on facebook to leave him a message: “Dude, my Google is in Hawaiian. I know it’s you, Donaghyyyyyyy!!!!”
Donaghyyyyyyy is Keola Donaghy, assistant professor and computer geek in residence at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language. And he is indeed the man behind Google’s newly acquired fluency in Hawai‘i’s native tongue.
Working as a volunteer translator with “Google in Your Language,” a campaign to provide Google in indigenous and minority languages, Donaghy spent more than a hundred hours putting the search engine’s help and navigational texts into Hawaiian. The undertaking involved translating some 2,200 strings of characters, ranging from single words to full paragraphs.
Sitting in his cluttered, cavelike office, Donaghy says it’s essential that Hawaiian flow as freely on the Web as it does in the hallways of his department. “If we want the language to live, it has to work in contemporary society,” he says. Google isn’t the first online inroad Donaghy has made for Hawaiian. He’s been at this for eighteen years, rearranging keyboards for the twelve-letter Hawaiian alphabet, modifying screen fonts to allow Hawaiian diacriticals, playing sys-op for a Hawaiian-language BBS, cajoling Apple Inc. to show some aloha for ‘olelo Hawai‘i. His work with Apple is why the latest iPhone and iPod touch can now text in Hawaiian, with kahako atop every long vowel and ‘okina at every glottal stop. It’s also why Namahoe’s laptop let her set her system language preferences to Hawaiian, which—without further technical ado—helps explain how Hawaiian Google found her on launch day.
Ultimately, Googling in Hawaiian might be more symbolic than practical, Donaghy says, but the symbolism is huge, particularly for Hawaiian immersion school students. “It tells children that the language doesn't have any borders,” he says. “It means Hawaiian is as viable in technology and telecommunications as it is in the taro patch or fishing at the beach.”