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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 7, 2010

Books in Hawaiian language fill a void

By Lee Cataluna

Writers of the English language are taught to use the active voice:

I threw the ball.

But in the Hawaiian language, a different pattern is often used:

The ball was thrown by me.

For a while, Sam L. No'eau Warner was translating children's books written in English into Hawaiian. Some of the stories were big hits with students in Hawaiian immersion programs, like "No, David!" which became " 'A'ole e Kawika!" But others were fraught with cultural conflicts which made translation imprecise or awkward.

He would buy hundreds of dollars worth of books for the schools, translate the pages and paste in the Hawaiian words.

"Instead of being literal, I would look at the intent of the writer," he said. "After a while, I started adding lines because in Hawaiian, that's how it would be said."

He tried writing to publishers to ask permission to translate certain books. "The No. 1 reaction was to ignore the letters," Warner said. "When they did respond, they wanted too much money."

If only books for young readers of the Hawaiian language were written in the Hawaiian language. Warner almost reluctantly realized that the task fell to him.

"I don't consider myself a writer, per se," Warner said. "I guess I try to design experiences."

Warner, a professor at UH Mänoa's Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language, has his master's degree in English as a second language and his Ph.D. in educational psychology.

He got a grant of $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education's Native Hawaiian Education Act. He stretched that into 31 books, all lovingly illustrated by Hawai'i artists.

The books have no English translations. They are written for beginning readers who speak Hawaiian, not for people trying to learn to speak Hawaiian.

The series is greatly varied. There is a flap book where children are asked to identify the fins of various sea animals ("No Ka I'a Hea Keia Kualä?"). Another story tells of a young boy afraid of all the things that should be fun, like fireworks, the dark movie theater and the robotic dinosaurs at the mall. One that embraces kid humor is called "Pupuka 'o Hope o Ka Píkake" ("Ugly, the back of the peacock!")

Next month, Alu Like will hold a book launch for the I Mua No Ka 'Ulu collection. "I guess a book launch is weird because we're not selling these anywhere," Warner said. The grant was specifically to provide students of public school Hawaiian-language immersion programs with the books. Every class and every library got all 31 books.

Warner also gave the books to each family with children in immersion programs so they can be read and enjoyed at home. He's gotten letters of thanks from parents and grandparents. "They say the kids really love the books," Warner said. "It's working."