Translation Problems

The other day I was talking to someone, a transplant from the mainland, who works here as a facilitator-- she was telling me about her work in different organizations, and how entrenched people can be in their feelings about ideas, and how tricky it can be to untangle some of those interpersonal knots. I mentioned that with school we've had facilitators come in to lay western-style groundrules and accomplish western-style goals, and that we've also had Hawaiian ho'oponopono. She was curious about it-- how does it work? What is it like?

I told her about my experience, how it went for hours and hours, starting immediately after school and carrying on until nearly midnight, what the alaka'i' did-- his role seemed similar to the mediator's role-- providing space for everyone to say their part, to be heard.  In my limited experience, it didn't seem that there were set scripts to follow, although every person was expected to speak, and everyone, as we went around the enormous circle, expressed their gratitude for each other, and apologized for their part in the difficulties we were addressing. I said, "We stayed until everyone felt heard." When we left, the alaka'i told us that now it was finished, that he had to leave it in the past and move forward.

But I was unsatisfied with my own explanation. It was inadequate-- for two major reasons. One, I don't know that much about it. Yes, I've participated-- yes, I read Mary Kawena Pukui's description of what it means in Nana I Ke Kumu, but my understanding is shallow.  I've attended Mass once or twice but I would never feel qualified to explain its significance to someone who had never been. I felt like I should add the caveat-- but don't take MY word for it...

The other problem with my explanation was my language. I kept slipping into analogues. The Alaka'i is like the mediator! The Ho'oponopono is cathartic! The groundrules are established! But all of these analogues are inadequate and oversimplify with comparison. I mean, they're fine for short-hand, but an Alaka'i is not a mediator-- the roles are very different and can't be conflated. The Alaka'i would be offended and distressed to be called a mediator or a facilitator. It's just... not that.

When I apply familiar American terms to Hawaiian practices, I flatten the practices. This is why practicing the culture-- and passing along the culture-- with the language, is so important. There are terms in Hawaiian that are specific to these activities, that set it apart from anything that can be performed in English. This is why I feel that the Hawaiian language IS an important part of understanding Hawaii and participating in life here. Because relatable explanations in English just can't get to the heart of the matter.


  1. Communication is an essential matter wherever we go. And when we visit or will be staying in a foreign country for a while, it's not enough that we learn their words and how to say them or construct them in a sentence, but it is also important that we understand their culture for us to be familiar with how they communicate with one another. It's challenging at first but I'm sure you'll be able to get the hang of it in a while. Good luck, Becca and I hope you're doing fine there right now! :-)

    Israel Oliver @ Atlas-Translations

  2. I think it is so important to have a familiar grasp of another language, especially if you are traveling to that Country. It really helps to at least get out a book of basics and know some simple terms. Most people will help you if you show them you try to understand their language. I wouldn't dream of going anywhere without at least grasping the language first.

    Sean @ Excel Translations


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