Issue 10.1: February / March 2007

Found in Translation

story by Chad Blair
photos by Guy Sibilla

Resonant. Sonorous. Deep. These words are often used to describe the voice of Puakea Nogelmeier, though none seem to capture the actual auditory effect when he’s speaking directly to me. Sitting in his Kalihi home on a muggy, late summer day, Nogelmeier—a renowned songwriter, Hawaiian language scholar and translator—sounds a little as if he’s speaking underwater while smoking a cigarette.

“I’m the voice of TheBus,” he points out—deeply, resonantly, sonorously—but this is something I already know. Anyone who has taken O‘ahu public transportation in the past five years knows his work: Triggered automatically at every stop, the pre-recorded spots let riders know they’ve arrived at Kapi‘olani Boulevard or Alapa‘i Street. As pronounced properly by Nogelmeier, it’s Kah-pee-oh-la-nee and Ah-la-pah-ee, the ‘okina—the upside-down apostrophe—requiring a cutting off or ending, a glottal stop.

A small distinction, no?

“No,” explains Nogelmeier. “It may be subtle, but it can mean the difference between, say, telling someone ‘I’m going to the bathroom’ as opposed to ‘I’m going to the bedroom.’ Those are very large distinctions.”




Being the voice of public transportation might seem a bit mundane, but it’s no small accomplishment for a self-described “haole maoli” born in San Francisco and raised in Minnesota. Nogelmeier intentionally mispronounces the phrase as how-lee mau-lee, which roughly translates as “native white person.” It is at once a self-deprecation and acknowledgment of just how far Marvin Nogelmeier—aka Puakea Nogelmeier, Ph.D.—has come.

In 1973 and fresh out of high school, Marvin lost his wallet in San Diego but still made it to Honolulu (these being the days when all you needed to board a plane was a ticket). He did, however, need a passport to get to his final destination, Japan. So he waited on O‘ahu for his birth certificate and money to come by mail.

Nogelmeier didn’t make it to Japan that year, but he did find a home in Wai‘anae.

“There no longer seemed to be a rush to go anywhere,” he says, reflecting on his early wanderlust. “I met really nice people in Hawai‘i, I qualified for unemployment, I was eighteen, and I was having the time of my life. There was no need to cut it short.”

To the young Marvin, Hawai‘i didn’t match up with what he had learned in high school geography. Stopping in a Korean bar after leaving the Honolulu airport—these were also the days when eighteen was the legal drinking age in the Islands—he overheard two locals talking. “I asked my friend, ‘What language is that?’ And he just looked at me and laughed. It was English! Pidgin English! It was radical, fast, laughing—I didn’t understand a single word.”

The first Hawaiian Nogelmeier heard spoken came from Sam Mahi‘ai, a resident of Makua Beach. “Today people would probably call him homeless, but he lived on the beach because he wanted to. He was the second-youngest of twenty-two children.”

Mahi‘ai showed him around the ‘aina. Soon, Nogelmeier was working as a craftsman in a shop at the Makaha Inn. It was the mid-1970s, and the revitalization of Hawaiian culture was happening everywhere. Nogelmeier joined kumu hula Mililani Allen’s classes, and he got hooked.

“I was immediately addicted,” he says. “It was the most remarkable activity, and I learned more about Hawai‘i than I had ever learned. I remember asking her, ‘Do you ever do this to music?’ And she says, ‘You do whatever I say, because I’m the kumu.’”

Next came chanting, and Nogelmeier began learning oli through classes taught by old masters supported by the State Council on Hawaiian Heritage. “They were afraid the masters would pass away and nobody was being trained. So, it was Edith Kanaka‘ole on the Big Island, Hoku Padilla on Maui, Edith McKinzie on O‘ahu. …”


Nogelmeier studied chant at Honolulu Community College. By now he was learning Hawaiian words and phrases in hula class. The class required giving public presentations, and one day after a performance an elderly Hawaiian man came up to him and attempted to engage him in conversation—in Hawaiian.

“And I said, ‘I apologize, Uncle, I don’t speak Hawaiian.’ And he looked crestfallen, and he said, ‘How can you know what you just chanted?’ And I said, ‘Well, I memorized the English’—and it sounded stupid then, and it sounds stupid now. He said, ‘But how can you know how well you did?’ He had come up to congratulate me!

“I walked away thinking, ‘It’s true, I need to know this language if I am going to work with this material.’”

Fortunately, by that time McKinzie had begun teaching a language class in her home. Nogelmeier, now called Puakea (“white flower” or “fair child”) courtesy of kumu hula Maiki Aiu Lake, began studying with Aunty Edith. He also tried out his lessons three times a week with an elderly man who was to become his mentor: Theodore Kelsey.

“He was a haole from Hilo, but he first came to Hawai‘i in the 1890s,” Nogelmeier recalls. “If you wanted to make friends back then, you had to learn Hawaiian. He’d be so delighted to hear me speak it, and he’d gently correct me: ‘You need to flow this,’ or ‘I think you mean this or that.’ Sometimes I didn’t even know what the error was and I’d have to really stew to see what he was pointing out. To someone who doesn’t know better, these may seem subtle mistakes, but they are not subtle. Mr. Kelsey would be patient until I became more ma‘a (accustomed) to it.”

Nogelmeier also studied under Naomi Losch at Leeward Community College and eventually enrolled at UH-Manoa. An unusually quick study, he had graduated from high school at age sixteen. It took him only seven semesters to earn a double major in anthropology and Hawaiian languages. Now fifty-three, he has a master’s in Pacific Island studies and a Ph.D. in anthropology, and has been teaching Hawaiian languages at Manoa since 1984.

“He’s very giving,” says Losch, who is now chair of Hawaiian Language at UH-Manoa. “Some people take and take, but he gives back. With his students he’s very engaging. He challenges them; he expects a lot. If you don’t challenge them, you don’t get much from them.”

Nogelmeier is often told he has a natural ear for pronunciation, but he says it’s really due to hard work. Remembering his UH days, he says, “I’d take the bus from Wai‘anae to UH everyday, and I’d practice in my head all the way, doing my homework.”

Nogelmeier’s understanding of Hawaiian has recently graduated to a new level. In September he was made a kumu hula under the tutelage Aunty Mei Kamamalu Klein.

“It’s a great honor, very humbling,” he says. “It is my kuleana, my responsibility, to perpetuate a tradition.” As he says this, the large green corneas of his eyes float limpidly in pools of white. “The word ‘kumu’ literally means to be a resource for others, and I intend to maintain that position of integrity.”

That path seems certain, particularly with the recent publication of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele (Hi‘iaka in the bosom of Pele). Though it was put to paper a century ago, this legend of the volcano goddess Pele, her favored younger sister Hi‘iaka and Pele’s lover Lohi‘au, has never been completely translated into English. Nogelmeier has not only translated the 450-page manuscript in its entirety, but also published the Hawaiian and English versions in companion volumes.

“We pulled out all the stops,” says Nogelmeier, obviously proud of the work. This special “centennial edition” includes color illustrations by Solomon Enos and is published in two different versions: the $300 set, on machine-bound moiré fabric; and a limited-edition moiré-and-leather hand-bound set that will run $1,500.

“Not everyone will own that, but they will see it, and they will know the most beautiful book they ever saw will be a Hawaiian book,” he says. A regular edition, smaller and much less pricey, is also in bookstores.

In the meantime, Nogelmeier continues to work with Ho‘olaupa‘i, a collaborative project spearheaded by the Bishop Museum with the goal of digitizing and placing on the Internet tens of thousands of pages from Hawaiian-language newspapers of the nineteenth and twentieth century, which are currently available only on microfilm. Project manager Kau‘i Sai-Dudoit says the newspaper project essentially amounts to reconstructing a national archive. “This is our language, and there is nowhere else in the world we can learn this language,” she explains. “If we don’t keep this language alive here, it will certainly die. Today, thanks to people like Puakea, there are a lot more Hawaiian language resources available than there were yesterday.

“I don’t know anyone that gives of himself so freely,” she says. “I asked him once, ‘Why do you do all this?’ He said that he received his skills as a gift, and now it is time to share everything that he has learned.” HH