This poem is “translated” from a Hawaiian song titled “Keanakolu”. I took the first five couplets, although the original totals eleven. This translation exercise required that we take a composition in a foreign language that we do not know, but that we can pronounce. American missionaries in the 1830s introduced a writing system to what had previously been a spoken language. Because the writing system was developed by Americans, I find that it is possible to approximate the phonetics of the language for the purposes of this exercise. To “translate”, we found words that sounded akin to the sounds of the original language.
I, uh, I can lie. Oh, keening cold you
You lay my nuance, I could anew.
Upon you, eyes lain. Who can manage no?
He, like me, cannot even open up.
My only plural is knowing you can wow
No key could he, we. How I, me, could lone.
I, I a loon. Oh, why could?
Can’t a lone oak? You put eyes, can’t I?
Could any of you know ways to do?
Could how I stay in you, who can allow?
The history of racial diversity and interracial relationship in Hawaii has interested me greatly for several years. In Hawaii, the term for mixed race individuals is “hapa”, a word which translates to half. (Hapa refers to anyone with Asian heritage, and Hapa Haole specifically refers to people who are part-Asian and part-White.) I myself am Asian/White multiracial, and have infrequently encountered others who share the same racial background. The idea that my self-identity is one that has its own vocabulary words associated with it is fascinating to me.
However, I think that I can recognize that my fascination with Hawaiian culture for this reason is somewhat problematic. I want to be immersed in a society where I can feel understood, but have idealized and crystallized notions of Hawaiian identity. My preconceptions or stereotypes that I associate with Hawaiian life are distanced from the lived experiences of the very individuals that I am trying to relate with. I don’t have a real opportunity to gain a meaningful understanding of the intricacies of Hawaiian life.
In “translating” this poem, I’ve tried somewhat to represent the spurious connection between myself and a hapa identity. Through appropriation and misinterpretation, I have made an original composition. For comparative purposes, the original Keanakolu can be found below, and a true English translation can be found on the website Huapala, an archival resource with Hawaiian music and hula.
Aia i ka la`i o Keanakolu
Ku`u lei mâmane nu`a i ke anu
Pôniu `ailana hu`e ka mana`o
E ike i ka nani o ia pua
Maoli pua ia no ka uka wao
Noke kuahiwi ho`i me ke kualono
Aia i a luna o Waikiu
Ka luna o ku`u pua i ka`ana ai
Ka`ana pû no wau me ke anu
Ku`u hoa i ke anu ao Hakalau
Lauahi kô lima lâ e ka hoa
Ke aka kau o ke ao nâulu
Ulu hua wale au ia Waiau
Ka piko kaula o ka `âina
I laila ka wai hû a Kâne
Ia wai kaulana helu minuke
Pupû ike `ole ia iho ia
He ihona na ka lima hema `eha `oe
Maka `ao`ao `âkau mai `oe
O loa`a i ka hema lâ palupalu
Ha`ina `ia mai ana ka puana
Aia i ka la`i o Keanakolu