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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 22, 2004

Hawaiian Bible projects unearth past

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

 •  Translation of the Hawaiian Bible

Lecture by cultural specialist Malcolm Naea Chun

Noon Thursday

Mission Houses Museum

$14 (includes lunch, admission to exhibit)

Reservations: 531-0481

Also: The "Lasting Impressions: Printing & Engraving in Hawai'i" exhibition continues at the museum through June 26.

Back in the '70s, Malcolm Naea Chun was a graduate assistant in clinical psychology working on a film project at Lunalilo Homes for elderly Hawaiians when an administrator there took him out to the covered lanai to meet two people "doing a project on the Hawaiian language." There, he recalls, sat two ladies clanking away at donated typewriters.

They were retyping the Hawaiian-language Bible, transcribing the tiny print to a larger size.

"They had done all of Genesis, which was pretty good," Chun says. "But by the time they got to Revelations, they'd be all dead."

He knew they weren't investing their energy wisely. "Brilliant me — I think there's a better way to do this," he said. "There's a computer at UH, and we can typeset it."

He put together a group to help, asked for and received permission from the American Bible Society, which had done the earlier version, and helped create "Na 'Euanelio Hemolele," the Holy Gospels, in a large-print edition with diacritical marks.

Chun, who will be discussing the project at Thursday's lunchtime lecture at the Mission Houses Museum, isn't the only one focusing on the Hawaiian Bible these days. With the Baibala Hemolele about halfway into its three-year project, there's a modern revival of sorts to the Christian book considered to be the word of God.

Baibala Hemolele is a massive project creating an electronic Hawaiian Bible in modern Hawaiian, with diacritical markings and in an audio version so people can hear the words properly spoken.

Chun's group finished "Na 'Euanelio Hemolele" in 1985. Now a cultural specialist at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa College of Education, he notes that the translation is quite contemporary, and comes from the Greek and Hebrew.

"The missionaries were multilingual and chose not to do the King James version," said Chun, an Episcopalian.

He remembers his surprise when he went looking for an introduction for the Gospels.

"I thought it would be easy to find some nerd who'd found how the Bible was translated," he said. "There were articles about how the Bible was printed, but nothing about who translated it."

He said he found the common wisdom that missionaries had translated the Bible to be not completely the case. Early missionaries had to learn Hawaiian and teach literacy to Hawaiians, whose language was oral. It was then that they discovered what must have been an interesting link, Chun said — the Hawaiian language was related to Tahitian.

"An invitation was sent to a counterpart of the London Mission Society (the Methodist church), inviting them to come up to help them in Hawai'i," Chun said. "About the time that the fellow, William Ellis, was going to come up, missionaries received almost simultaneously a grammar book from Maori language. They had a tool of Maori English, and could see similarities."

Tahitian converts to Christianity also would help push along progress of the first Hawaiian translation of the Bible.

The other interesting news: "We've been able to piece together names of Hawaiians involved in the translation of the Bible," Chun said. "That's new. When it came to writing the history, Hawaiians weren't included in it. We know the work was collaborative. It was not not purely one group doing it."

He said collaboration is evidenced by timing, too: Linguists were not able to produce any significant documentation in Hawaiian for a significant period of years, "then, in three years (about 1820-23) — boom! — hymns, reading tracts, printed material, they're booming.

"You wonder why and how?" Chun said. "The answers, I'm more than certain, are because of Ellis, the Tahitians and the Hawaiians."