Issue 13.3: June/July 2010

The Ark of Olelo Hawaii

Story by Roland Gilmore
Photos by Ann Cecil


Nearly every week for the last six or so years, a small group has gathered for adult Sunday school just prior to morning services at Honolulu’s historic Kaumakapili church. Retired
Kahu (pastor) David K. Kaupu leads the group, mostly elders, through the gospels in a loose mix of Hawaiian and English, but the text they study, Baibala Hemolele (Holy Bible), is purely Hawaiian. The class helps churchgoers connect more deeply with the day’s services, which are also conducted in a mix of Hawaiian and English—just as they are at most of the churches that make up the Association of Hawaiian Evangelical Churches and the State Council of Hawaiian Congregational Churches. But the class also serves a more practical purpose: to teach the language.


Kahu Kaupu knows well the dual value of this study. He was born one of sixteen children on Moloka‘i; his father was a public school teacher. At home his parents spoke to each other and his elder siblings in Hawaiian, but by the time David himself entered the public school system in the 1930s, English had been the mandated language of instruction in public schools for nearly four decades. The Republic of Hawai‘i, which governed the Islands for four years in the wake of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s overthrow, passed a law in 1896 requiring that public and private schools use English “as the medium and basis for instruction” in order to be recognized by the government. After attending Kamehameha Schools and then seminary on the Mainland, he took up his first church posting in the Big Island’s rural Puna district, where the kupuna (elders) still mainly spoke Hawaiian. And so he began studying a Hawaiian-English version of the New Testament. “I came back into understanding and using the Hawaiian language through reading the Bible,” he says. “And yes, the Bible is still used by some people, certainly by me, as a language textbook.”

Hawaiian-language Bibles occupy a significant place in the history of Hawaiian writing. When in 1820 a group of American Congregationalist missionaries and Native Hawaiian scholars first set about translating the Palapala Hemolele (Holy Scriptures), there was not yet an established form of written Hawaiian. By the time their work was completed in 1839, Hawai‘i was in the early stages of producing one of world’s largest bodies of indigenous-language writing, including everything from religious texts to government documents, newspapers and works of fiction. The Bible translation work was a key component in standardizing the language in writing.

Palapala Hemolele
and its 1868 revision, Baibala Hemolele, also became vessels of preservation. For the scholar they bridge the language of pre-contact Hawai‘i and the language as it is spoken today, capturing (to the extent possible at the time) the Hawaiian of the nineteenth century. In some cases the texts preserve words that are no longer in use and which do not appear in any of the several Hawaiian-English dictionaries that have been published over the last 170 years. (One of the first, A Vocabulary of Words in the Hawaiian Language, was produced by the Rev. Lorrin Andrews in 1836, using the press at Maui’s Lahainaluna High School.) In other cases they contain words created by the translators themselves.


But the Hawaiian Bibles also helped to preserve the language during the long period beginning in the late 1800s and lasting well into the twentieth century, when Hawaiian was effectively banished from official use. While English became the language of government and instruction in public schools, Hawaiian was (and still is) regularly used in many churches. Because of the heavy conversion rate among Hawaiians, the Baibala was also found in many homes.


Like all other Pacific cultures,
Hawai‘i’s was an oral society at the time of first Western contact—in this case, the arrival of James Cook in 1778. And like much of the Pacific, where missionaries of various nationalities and denominations fanned out in the nineteenth century, the bulk of Hawai‘i’s earliest indigenous-language publications were religious tracts. One of the tenets of Congregationalism is to spread the gospel using the language of those meant to receive it. It was with that intent that the first missionaries to arrive in the Islands in 1820 brought with them a printing press. Two years later, even as the language was still in the process of being codified in writing, the press produced its first Hawaiian page. By 1827 more than 59,000 Hawaiian-language spelling books and roughly an equal number of religious pamphlets were produced. By 1835, 180,900 language primers had been distributed and more than 900 schools established in the Islands.


The Hawaiian Bible was not the first attempt at Hawaiian writing. The first word list of any kind had been compiled forty-two years earlier by Cook and his crew. Dr. William Anderson—along with Cook and the artist John Webber—went ashore on Kaua‘i and jotted down a list of more than 200 words spoken by the residents. As other Europeans visited the Islands, more lists followed, all with their own spelling conventions. Later still came Heneri ‘Opukaha‘ia, the first Hawaiian student at the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. ‘Opukaha‘ia was largely responsible for convincing the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to send its initial group of missionaries to Hawai‘i. Shortly before his death in 1818, ‘Opukaha‘ia also attempted a Hawaiian grammar, dictionary and spelling book, as well a translation of the Book of Genesis.


Even with these precedents, the Bible translators faced major hurdles. For one, they opted to go directly from the original Hebrew and Greek texts into Hawaiian, bypassing English altogether. (The King James Version, then the English-language standard for Protestants, had been translated from the same texts some 200 years earlier.) What’s more, at that point in linguistic history, there was not yet an accepted means of using the English alphabet—that is, of using a series of specific symbols associated with specific sounds—to write a language unrelated to English. Today Captain Cook’s first attempts at Island names strike many as comical, but given the linguistic limitations of his day, Atoui, Eneeheeou and Wouahoo are fair stabs at spelling Kaua‘i, Ni‘ihau and O‘ahu.


As Dr. Albert Schutz points out in his excellent history of Hawaiian writing, The Voices of Eden, there was also the issue of how to deal with words and concepts that had no corollary in the Hawaiian language—“catechism,” “Trinity” or “angel,” for example. As Schutz notes, the translators alternated among creating new meanings for existing Hawaiian words; using multiple Hawaiian words in new combinations; and employing “loan words,” that is, Hawaiian-ized versions of English words. For example, the word ui (literally “to ask” or “question”) was one of three terms used for “catechism.” In the case of “Trinity,” the translators took two extant words—kahi (one) and kolu (three)—and put them together to create a new word with both literal and symbolic meanings: kahikolu, “one-three,” or the unity of three parts. For “angel” the loan word was ‘anela. Little wonder the production of Palapala Hemolele took nearly twenty years to complete, with its revision as Baibala Hemolele coming nearly thirty years after that.


The Baibala Hemolele was reprinted several times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but by 2002 it had been out of print for nearly a decade. It had also never been reprinted using modern Hawaiian punctuation marks—the ‘okina (glottal stop) and kahako (macron)—that many readers today depend on to make sense of words that can sometimes have vastly different meanings depending on pronunciation and context.


Enter the Partners in Development Project and Baibala Hemolele, which began life with the aim of making an edition of the Hawaiian Bible freely available online. Eight years on, the project has progressed far beyond that benchmark: Today the 1839, 1868 and 1994 versions of the Bible are all online. Each is fully searchable; texts from the various editions can be viewed side by side to track changes between them. Audio recordings have been added to the web site to aid in pronunciation. Not surprisingly, the majority of Hawai‘i-based visitors to the site are using computers on the University of Hawai‘i system, which offers numerous Hawaiian-language courses.


But the work is not done.


“Since we began, grander goals were added,” says Helen Kaowili, who has been with the project since the beginning and serves as project manager. The grandest of these goals is punctuation—not only to add ‘okina and kahako, but also to separate words that had been joined together or joining words that had been separated in the original texts. This alone is a monumental task: As already mentioned, some words are no longer in regular use and don’t appear in modern dictionaries; when these same words appear in nineteenth-century dictionaries, they of course don’t include modern punctuation. Kaowili has been aided by a number of well-known Hawaiian-language specialists, but she is the only full-time employee on the project. Now that this work has been completed, new online and print editions are in the works.


Helen is the daughter of Kahu Kaupu. She grew up reading the Baibala Hemolele and has herself gone through the seminary, where she studied both Greek and Hebrew. Not surprisingly, she professes great respect for the missionaries who first set out to translate the Bible—the Revs. William Richards, Hiram Bingham, Asa Thurston, Artemas Bishop, Lorrin Andrews, Jonathan Green, Ephraim Clark and Sheldon Dibble. At the same time, she is quick to acknowledge the immense contribution of the Hawaiians who worked with them. With the exception of three confirmed names—David Malo, Samuel M. Kamakau and Kuakini—and others who are suspected, the contribution of these native scholars has been largely obscured by history. But they are not lost on their modern counterpart.


“A credible and sound translation would not have been possible without Native Hawaiians,” says Kaowili. “I feel a deep affinity and great aloha for my kupuna who grappled with the work; I am also struck by a deep sense of responsibility to get it right. I have a small part in this journey begun almost two hundred years ago, and I feel like I am heir to this work, which must be preserved and continued. I ke Akua ka ho‘onani ia: To God be the glory.”


Baibala Hemolele can be found online at