The Road Goes Ever On

A new translation of The Hobbit takes readers i laila a ho`i hou mai-there and back again
Story by Ronald Williams Jr.

I’m at the part where Bilbo Baggins slips invisibly along the edge of a massive pile of treasure guarded by a supposedly slumbering dragon. Suddenly a piercing red beam shoots from underneath Smaug’s drooped eyelid and stops the ring-wearing hobbit in his tracks.

The tension I feel is the same as when last I read JRR Tolkein’s masterpiece at age 13. I flip the page and continue: “‘Ā, no laila, e ka ‘aihue! Honi au iā ‘oe a pā maila kou ea. Lohe au i kou hana ‘ana.” (“Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath.”) The story is a near century-old classic, but this edition is hot off the press. I’m reading Ka Hopita, or The Hobbit—in Hawaiian.

Even before I received the book, the mere idea of Ka Hopita amazed me; the chance to see Gandalf, Thorin and Bilbo through the eyes of a Hawaiian narrator had me excited. When my copy arrived, beautifully illustrated with Tolkien’s original watercolor images (with the writing on them translated into Hawaiian), I looked for the maps. Sure enough, there at the top of the first one was Mauna Mehameha (a.k.a. the Lonely Mountain), and to the southeast was Ka Neoneo o Smaug (The Desolation of Smaug). Despite the difficulty of reading a work of this complexity in a second language, I was primed for the challenge; I wanted to go “i laila a ho‘i hou mai”—“there and back again.”

The Hawaiian-language Hobbit is part of an ongoing project of Kaua‘i native Keao NeSmith to translate some of the world’s best-known tales into Hawaiian—a language recovering from near extinction. Great strides have been made in the now thirty-year-old efforts to revive ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language), but its place in the Islands is still relatively small and the language remains endangered. It’s estimated that today fewer than 2 percent of Hawai‘i’s 1.4 million residents use Hawaiian in their daily lives. In the face of that statistic, a dedicated and passionate group of speakers, teachers and supporters is working to give Hawai‘i’s native language a more prominent role in the life of the Islands.

For Keao NeSmith (seen on the opening spread) translating literature is a way to further the recovery of the Hawaiian language. He sees a similarity with Bilbo, who returns victorious but changed by the world and by loss. "We are throwing everything we have into saving our language," he says, "but there's much ‘ike (knowledge) that's been left behind."

One way to make that happen is by making the language a normal part of daily experience. “The simple presence of language gives it power,” says Puakea Nogelmeier, professor of Hawaiian lan-guage at the Hawai‘inuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. “The more people run into Hawaiian in their everyday experiences, the more mana [power] the language has.” Even though the potential readership is relatively small, the mere presence of a Hawaiian Hobbit adds prestige to the language. “It is horrible that that’s the situation,” says NeSmith. “We’ve always known how cool our language is. But the bottom line is, we need to remind people.” Hiapokeikikāne Perreira, professor of Hawaiian and indigenous languages and culture revitalization at UH Hilo, agrees: “Our movement will not succeed separated from the world we live in. Work like Keao’s is sorely needed, and in our generation he’s one of the rare individuals who can do this sort of thing.”

NeSmith isn’t starting a new tradition; he’s continuing an old one. More than a century ago, Hawaiian-language nūpepa (newspapers) delivered current events from around the globe, places such as Rusia (Russia), Kepania (Spain), Amelika (America), Kelemānia (Germany), Peresia (Persia) and more. They also introduced Hawaiian speakers to world literature with newspapers such as Ka Nūpepa Kū‘oko‘a (The Independent Newspaper) offering a selection of classics. A collection of Indian and Persian folk tales was introduced to Hawaiian readers in 1874 as He Kaao Arabia (An Arabian Tale/Arabian Nights); the French underwater adventure Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers became He Iwakalua Tausani Legue Malalo o ke Kai (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea); the Brothers Grimm retelling of a French fairy tale came to readers in the Islands as Kanani Hiolanikanahele (Sleeping Beauty). In 1919 Kū‘oko‘a ran “Tazana” (Tarzan) along with an ad informing audiences that the film He Moolelo o na Mapu (Tarzan of the Apes) was playing at the Bijou Theatre in Honolulu. In the two years since NeSmith began translating classics, he’s produced Hawaiian-language versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. The Hobbit is a logical if ambitious next step. “My initial reason for wanting to do The Hobbit was because of just how cool it is. Everybody knows this story,” he says. “The Hobbit was the first fat book I ever read.”

NeSmith was born and raised in Kekaha, Kaua‘i, surrounded by native speakers. It was his tūtū (grandmother) Annie Kealoha Kauhane in particular who passed the language and her aloha for it on to NeSmith. Now a Hawaiian-language kumu (teacher) at UH, NeSmith has made the revival of his ‘ōlelo makuahine (mother tongue) his life’s work. The passion instilled in him by his tūtū is now paired with a PhD in applied linguistics and fluency in several languages, including Hawaiian, Tahitian and French. For the Hobbit project, NeSmith collaborated with Michael Everson, a linguist with similar passions. The Ireland-based publisher has been active in supporting minority-language communities throughout the world. His company Evertype has published more than a hundred titles since 2006, books like The Hobbit and Alice, in endangered languages including Cornish, Welsh, Scots, Irish and multiple Polynesian languages—the Tongan ‘Alisi ‘i he Fonua ‘o e Fakaofo (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) came out last year.

Speaking with NeSmith about The Hobbit, you get a sense of how complex this kind of work is. Translation on this scale is more than a matter of substituting words; he has to get to know the writer, the style, the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the period and more. The difficulty increases with a writer like Tolkien, who engaged in wordplay and included poetry. And there’s the challenge of translating into clear and effortless prose. “It needs to read naturally in the target language,” says NeSmith. “It can’t be so literal that it’s awkward or it loses its main purpose, enjoyment. I’ve succeeded if it reads as if it could have originally been written in Hawaiian.”

Among the challenges of translating a work of fantasy like The Hobbit is in giving Hawaiian names to the beings that inhabit Tolkien’s Middle-earth. It wasn’t enough to just name the creatures, though; the terms had to make sense in a Hawaiian context. But Tolkien’s source material was hardly Polynesian; he’d drawn from Norse, Greek, British and other mythologies as inspiration for orcs, dragons, elves, dwarves and, yes, hobbits. To bring those characteristics faithfully to a Hawaiian audience, NeSmith had to create beings previously undescribed in the Hawaiian realm. As a linguist, this is the stuff NeSmith lives for, he says, speaking about this exercise in mythography with the excitement of a 13-year-old boy—albeit a very smart one. “Trolls come from Norse mythology and were usually associated with rocks and caves. In most traditions, sunlight turned them to stone. In Tolkien’s story Gandalf tricks the trolls into an argument that keeps them up past sunrise, and sure enough they become rock. So I came up with ‘hakua’—a conjunction of haku (stone) and ‘akua’ (god or powerful, mysterious creature)—for a Hawaiian troll.”

In Tolkien’s Eldar, or elves, NeSmith saw parallels to mythical beings said to hide deep in the forests of Kaua‘i named mū. Tolkien’s elves share characteristics with mū—they also live in forests—but they differ in one significant way: They leave the forest and interact with other beings. NeSmith named a new race of mū, mūwao (wilderness mū). It wasn’t always that easy: During his research, NeSmith realized that his original choice of mūwao ki‘eki‘e (elves living at high altitude) for Tolkien’s “high elves” didn’t fit the in-tended meaning—in Tolkien’s world, the title “high” has nothing to do with altitude. Thus mūwao ki‘eki‘e became mūwao ihupani (elves of expert wisdom). Finding a Hawaiian name for the ogres—‘ōkelo—was simpler. The hideous, man-eating monsters of early fairy tales, often associated with lakes and ponds, were known to hide under bridges. “The prefix ‘‘ō’ in Hawaiian means ‘sort of’ and ‘kelo’ means ‘slimy’”—à la Shrek. “So I combined them to create the ‘ōkelo,” NeSmith says.

Adapting English literary traditions was an even greater challenge than creating Hawaiian identities for Tolkien’s creatures. Tolkien’s merry characters sing songs, lots of them, and they rhyme. “Mele [songs] were both the most fun and my worst nightmare,” NeSmith says. Hawaiian doesn’t intrinsically have rhyming but does have its own set of literary devices. NeSmith was able to find a way to bring rhyming to Hawaiian that sounds authentic and still tickles the Hawaiian ear. And, he points out, rhyme might not be native to the language, but neither is it completely new. “There was a tradition of rhyming in Hawaiian from the nineteenth century,” he points out. “The Christian hymns that became an integral part of many Hawaiians’ lives were rhymes.”

In the end, NeSmith always returned to the question of what his tūtū would think. “Ultimately, she’s the person I want to please. Her and the rest of the native-speaker community are the ones I have the biggest aloha for.” NeSmith has other foreign classics on his wish list—The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—but his next project is publishing three traditional Hawaiian stories, in Hawaiian, that will then be translated into other languages. This, he says, fuels the process of the interaction of Hawaiian with other languages around the world.

“Kamau ka holo o ke ala” (“Roads go ever ever on”), says Bilbo upon returning to his home in the Shire and seeing “kona Pu‘u pono‘ī” (“his own Hill”) at the end of his journey. He had started out an unwilling participant shanghaied into a company of quixotic dwarves. Bilbo was just a hobbit and hobbits don’t do adventure, not among dragons, orcs and warring armies. But it was the hobbit who turned out the unlikely hero in the end. NeSmith sees reading Ka Hopita, the translation project and the greater task of returning Hawaiian language to its place as similarly challenging journeys. “It’s this mountain that Bilbo and the gang have to climb,” NeSmith says—“the suffering through hunger, fear and hopelessness before they can even begin to reach the gold. This is the real analogy to the struggle of the Hawaiian-language community today.”

“I hope at some point the process, visceral and mental, that Keao used in this project is widely known,” says Perreira. “Our students and kids need to know the struggles we go through to produce something like this—that in order for us to learn our language and bring it back to a living language, it takes a lot more than just saying, ‘I’m Hawaiian and that’s my language.’ We need to be challenged and to know that these difficulties can make us wiser, stronger, more confident. We need examples of these journeys. Ka Hopita is certainly that.” HH

Story by Ronald Williams Jr. Photos by