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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 4, 2003

Hawaiian Bible joins modern age

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

The Hawaiian Bible is one of the seminal works of early Hawaiian literature, written at a time when residents all spoke the language.

Russell Kaupu, chairman of the Hawaii Conference Foundation, holds his grandmother's old Hawaiian Bible.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Today, its lack of diacritical markings and odd contractions are confusing to non-native speakers.

A massive project aims to change that, with an electronic Hawaiian Bible in modern Hawaiian with diacritical markings commonly used today and an additional, audio version so students can hear the words properly spoken.

Baibala Hemolele is nearly a year into its three-year project, under a $450,000 grant from the Administration for Native Americans.

The project draws on new technology and old: Computer software converts the old Bible into a text file and translates it, and Hawaiian-language experts correct the computer's mistakes.

It's a project that worries some old-timers, concerned that the decisions of Hawaiian elders who participated in the original translations are being supplanted. The Rev. William Kaina, 78, recalls that during the 1960s he opposed a proposed translation of the early Bible.

"I objected to that. They're taking the authority of the Hawaiian language away from the Hawaiians of that time. I said to them, 'Who made you the authority?' " he said.

Kaina's opposition has since faded. Hawaiian was commonly spoken when he was growing up in Kalapana on the Big Island. Parishioners knew from context what the words meant, even with the Hawaiian glottal stop marker left out — or worse, apostrophes inserted to take the place of an "a" because printers didn't have enough vowels available to handle the vowel-rich Hawaiian language.

Kaina said he has seen a deep desire for the Hawaiian language among his flock at the Wai'anae Protestant Church.

"I would use the Hawaiian language, and by golly they would come to church with pencil and paper. And now they're using the Hawaiian language more and more," he said.

Today he is a staunch supporter of Baibala Hemolele. The original Hawaiian Bibles are out of print, and if an updated version helps non-native speakers learn its message and language, all the better, he said. "It's a wonderful project."

Jan Hanohano Dill launched the effort through his Partners in Development Foundation, which obtained the federal grant. Semi-retired sugar executive Jack Keppeler, who is part-Hawaiian, is project manager and Helen Kaowili is project coordinator.

A number of people in the Hawaiian community participate, including representatives of the Hawaiian-language programs at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and UH-Hilo. The senior scholar and referee, whose expertise is brought in when translators disagree, is Pua Hopkins, retired University of Hawai'i Hawaiian-language professor and author of the language text "Ka Lei Ha'aheo."

"You have a growing body of students who read, write, speak and certainly understand Hawaiian, but they are not native speakers," Hopkins said. The occasional replacement of the letter "a" with an apostrophe can be very confusing, she said. "The Bible project will eventually straighten all that out."

Keppeler said the Hawaiian Bible was translated directly from the original Hebrew for the Old Testament, and Greek for the New Testament. In some cases, since the translation took place away from the political environment that influenced the English-language King James version, the Hawaiian Bible may be more true to the original meanings, he said.

The first Hawaiian Bible translation, "Palapala Hemolele," involved several missionaries and took from 1822 to its publication in 1839. A second translation, "Baibala Hemolele," was produced by Ephraim Clarke in 1868.

The new project uses OCR (optical character recognition) software to convert the old books to computer text files. Human editors compare the new against the original to ensure the computer transferred all letters correctly.

Then the file is run through translation software produced at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. The program, dubbed Kiwi, translates meanings based on the context.

For example, if the word "huna" appears in the original, the software tries to determine whether it should be the verb "huna," meaning to conceal, or the noun "huna," a tiny particle. Since it doesn't always guess right, the results are reviewed by Hawaiian-language experts Ralph Koga from Manoa and Kaliko Trapp from Hilo.

Changes made by the editors are then fed back to the computer, which can improve its accuracy.

"We're surprised to find that this self-teaching software is running in the high 90s in accuracy," Keppeler said. "You keep feeding the correct spellings back and it improves its accuracy."

Keppeler said the New Testament should be done by the end of the year, and the Old Testament next year. "By the end of 2004, we should have a pretty complete work product," he said.

Then the team will create an audio track using Hawaiian speakers and a set of cross-referencing tools. One goal is to allow readers to click on a section and hear the passage spoken, or click on a word or passage and be directed to reference material — a dictionary, traditional 19th-century Sunday-school curricula and the like.

"The Bible was a profound work for Hawai'i," Keppeler said. "It was among the first books to be translated into Hawaiian, and it was the basis for the very high level of literacy in the Hawaiian Kingdom — the highest in the world at that time."

Keppeler's discussion of the project shifts between boosterism and understatement, but he does not suggest they are rewriting or revising the ancient text.

"We're respelling the Bible," he said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.