Mo'okini, Esther T. "Kiki"

Melehina Groves lāua ‘o Ken Ordenstein


Photo: Courtesy of Ken Ordenstein.
Aunty "Kiki" Mo‘okini.

Esther Mo‘okini was presented the first Pa‘a Mo‘olelo Award (Distinguished Historian Award) by the Hawaiian Historical Society on October 22, 2005. She was recognized for her lifelong contributions to perpetuating ka ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, as well as her selfless dedication to preserving the language for generations to come. Some of her most outstanding works include, but are not limited to, The Hawaiian Dictionary, Place Names of Hawai‘i, The Wind Gourd of La‘amaomao, and Anatomia.

Aunty Kiki graciously took the time to sit down in Ken Ordenstein's Kailua home and talk story with Ka‘iwakīloumoku about her current projects, some of the challenges translators face, and what might be on the horizon!





MG:      Aunty Kiki, how long have you lived in Kailua?

EM:      Since 1958.  So how long does that make it?  [laughing] 

MG:      And now you’ve been doing a lot of work translating court documents?

EM:      I’ve been working with district court cases from the judiciary.  And they’ll go back as far as...1839.

MG:      Wow, have you seen any land dispute items?

EM:      I haven’t seen those and perhaps it’s because land cases were probably heard in a different court.  The district court level [which I’ve been working with] handles things like speeding. Say you feel as though you were going 35 but the policeman says "No, you were going 55." If you didn’t like the judge’s comments that you have to pay the difference, then you appeal and take it to the next level, to the Circuit Court.  

I did a lot with the district court but I didn’t do too many police courts.  There were two police courts, one in Honolulu and one in Lāhaina in the very early days, but I didn’t do any of those.  I started out with district court and they’re awfully good.  But they really need another translator, I’m just about pau. 

MG:      When you say that they’re really "good," do you mean that the cases are interesting to read, a slice of life, maybe?

EM:      Sometimes, not all the time.  And then it also depends on who’s going to be using what material.  I was deeply involved in the South Hilo District Court on the lower level, because there were a lot of adultery cases. This professor, Sally Merry from Wellesley College was very, very much interested in finding out where females fit into the whole judicial scene because the judiciary was established in 1840.

But she [the professor] was very much interested in any case that had to do with women and what it was all about.  If it was adultery, fine, just translate it and let her know. But there were others, and I can’t quite remember...there were very few females who were either the plaintiff or the defendant, so she was very much interested where the females fit in.  She published a book but it’s so hard to read! You need a PhD to read it!

MG:      It was published for research purposes?

EM:      Yeah, it was published out of Princeton Press.  She got a lot out of just reading one particular judge’s cases.  I was particularly interested in one judge because he went from the Kingdom to the Provisional Government to the Republic and finally to the Territorial years. So did he change his ideas along the way?  No, it seemed whatever was judicially correct, that’s what he was there for.  I like doing the District Court because the cases are very short.  The defendant appears in court and if you don’t have an attorney, then the person in court announces "The King vs. Melehina -- the charges, adultery," and then the judge asks you questions.  It’s really very, very quick.  On the district level, you see what the population dealt with...what kind of cases appeared. 

Many of them in Honolulu had to do with racing and betting on racing.  It was against the law to gamble, to bet.  They used to have horse races on King Street, say from Nu‘uanu Avenue to the river.  They were not supposed to do that, because they were gambling.

MG:      So the majority of cases involved horse racing!

EM:      Yeah, it was really a big issue. On the district level it’s fun;  I like that level because I can see how the common, ordinary people lived, you know? What was important to them, what was not important to them? A lot of it had to do with trespassing -- not of human beings, but of animals! Cattle were not fenced in.

MG:      I’d heard something like they used to have a corral downtown where lost animals would be put and ads were run describing the animal’s features in great detail!

EM:      I wouldn’t be surprised! [laughing]

MG:      Learning about the common man’s concerns must be really fascinating and different than most subject matter out there.  Do any other issues come to mind?

EM:      Drunkenness.  A lot of the cases were based on that. Riots on the street, noisemaking after dark...there was one case that had to do with an adopted child. I thought that was strange because Hawaiians always practiced hānai, you know?  Why bring it to court? Well, I think the reason was because the hānai parents took care of this part-Haole girl and when she became of age, like eight, nine, or ten years old, there was some money left for her by her real parents, I think that’s the way it goes. And the hānai parents did not want to give up the child even if she had that money, and it wasn’t very much -- it was something like $200. To us, it’s nothing much but to them when they made .25 a day, that was a lot of money. 

The hānai parents and the people claiming the child came to court and the judge asked, "Who really took care of this child?  What do you mean by taking care of the child?"  and all that sort of stuff.  That was the only one, though.  A lot of them are the common, ordinary things but that’s how you find out how the common, ordinary people lived. 

MG:      Reading through the old papers, the "kela mea, keia mea" stuff really gives you that feeling, too.

EM:      Yeah!  All of the projects that students and scholars participate in...I know that their instructors have to publish these things and give them the proper acknowledgement.  But they have to be brought out!  What’s the sense of translating and just stashing it away in a library?  People won’t know it’s there!

KO:       I never thought of court documents as a window before, but they really are!

EM:      Yes, you can really get so many things from it.

MG:      My thing is learning how they expressed themselves, what words did they use?

EM:      Yes!  That’s huge.  I know there is a wealth of new vocabulary and it takes time, like anything, to get it out.  And you must share it so that the next set of translators don’t do the same things! 

Looking in the newspapers, there’s so much that we don’t understand, but you know, there is a new generation of speakers now, although I don’t quite agree with the definition that’s sometimes given them.  I was always of the opinion that in order to be a native speaker you had to be born and raised with the language.  You can’t acquire it, once you acquire it you’re not a native speaker.  That’s just my opinion; I can’t see them calling themselves native speakers.

It’s too bad that the native speakers are all slowly dying out.  Now I’m just wondering if anyone at the university is doing anything with the newspapers.  I don’t expect them to do it chronologically, it’s boring when you do it that way!  But whatever they do, whatever they take out of the Hawaiian Language newspapers, please publish it!  With things like Desktop Publishing, it’s cheap to do it that way.  Wind Gourd of La‘amaomao, we did that with Desktop Publishing...I’m quite sure. So as a result, we were able to sell it for $6 a copy and everybody can afford $6.  $25 and up is not too easy.   

MG:      When I was a student a lot of our text would be printed straight from the nūpepa, stories like Kawelo and Hi‘iakaikapolioPele.  I had a class with Noenoe Silva which was entirely dedicated to examining nūpepa, what each was about, and their various luna ho‘oponopono.

EM:      Yes! Newspapers would print full stories, chapter one, chapter two... "aole i pau" means to be continued! Sometimes they’d even switch newspapers!  We have to tap into the newspapers, they need text!  I think my next project is’ve seen that catalog that they gave out, the one on Hawaiian Language newspapers?  I’m going to expand upon that, the Historical Society has asked me to expand on it and give whatever new information I have on various newspapers.  I haven’t really looked into it, but they’re willing to support the project, so I think I’ll do that.

MG:      That index they gave out was such a treasure!

EM:      Yeah, they were not sure that they could republish it because it’s out of print, it was done by Topgallant Press which was John Dominis Holt’s press. His wife was Peaches Damon and their estate has not been settled. So the Historical Society finally got in touch with one of the Damons and he said, "Go ahead and print it." He said just do it, because it’s been out of print for so very long!

MG:      It’s such a shame when things go out of print.

EM:      Yeah, it’s always so good if you can get to the original!

MG:      As far as translating challenges, what do you think is the hardest obstacle you've come across? How do you tackle those really tough translation problems?

EM:      You go and find the nearest kupuna who is a native speaker. And a lot of the native speakers...they’re feeling is, "Oh, I don’t know that," because a lot of these kūpuna wāhine were mothers in the house, they never went out. The ones you want to get a hold of are those who read the Hawaiian Language newspapers because they would get the meanings...I knew one lady, she died a long time ago...but a lot of things in those old Hawaiian newspapers come out with words, phrases, you know that are no longer used. We really need somebody who either recognizes that or somebody who understands the context. Because that’s hard to do! If you’re not at all familiar, like me, I’m not at all me, Hawaiian language is a foreign language. It’s not foreign in the islands, but it’s foreign to me because it’s unknown to me. I really need to talk to somebody who lived in that period of time.

MG:      Somebody who understands the context.

EM:      Right, exactly. [And newspapers were really the only places where stories were published.] Books to be published, like Anatomia, they were done by the missionaries and there was a definite purpose for them to be published. But the other stories, they didn’t publish them into a book form. Wind Gourd, luckily, we got from Moses Nākuina and he had it published in a book form in...1907, something like that. The fact that it was in book form made it very convenient. 

Erin Neizmen and I, when we were in graduate school together, extracted the story of Kamapua‘a from an...1858 story, George Kahiolo.  Like you, we had to... well, at that time there weren’t such great copy machines, so we physically copied the stories. Hand-copied everything.  So we needed somebody else to check our hand-copy of the Hawaiian. It was quite a deal. 

It’s always fun to find out what Hawaiian scholars are doing!  I find myself really wishing that more of the Hawaiian language teachers would publish.  And some of the books we do publish they won’t use.  "We can’t use that because you’ve got English facing the Hawaiian!" Some feel that the students aren’t going to learn by reading the English part but I feel you can weed out the bad students, get ‘em out of there!  The ones who are interested in the Hawaiian, keep them! 

All of my books...we didn’t do Kamapua‘a, that was done out of Hawaiian Studies, UH Press put it out and that’s out of print.  We had the English and Hawaiian facing each other.  As a student, I would like to know how come the English looks like this?  You know for a fact that you have to fool around with the English to make the Hawaiian understandable.  Where and how did the translator do that?  This is what I’m interested in.  You cannot equate the two languages, or any language!  You cannot equate. 

MG:      The idioms, the modes of expression...

EM:      It wouldn’t make any sense! I’m hoping Kalena and Ho‘oilina come out with something.  The past issues have been partials, right?  They cannot devote one whole text to one whole year...more like excerpts.  That’s what I would hope.  When I was doing Anatomia for the John Burns Medical School Native Hawaiian Center of Excellence,

I ran into some really difficult passages!  Difficult because people like me who are translating are not doctors!  Some people think, "Oh, it’s Hawaiian, it’s easy," but it isn’t!

MG:      It gets harder the more you learn!

EM:      Yes! The more you learn, the harder it gets! [laughing]  There’s so many things out there, people know how to get to the newspapers, it isn’t a hidden thing.  If teachers are having their students work with translating the papers, publish them, under the students’ names.  This Dr. Hokama who’s a pathologist at John Burns, he used to -- I don’t know if they still do this -- have a summer program with a lot of summer students, most of them were in medical school. Konane, my daughter, was one of them.  They would run tests for him; he’s done some really marvelous stuff. 

Konane was in his class and he would assign these students to go and do research on such-and-such a topic.  They would all get together, write up the paper, and it would be published in the Pathology department as their paper.  I think that’s a great thing and don’t see why more departments don’t do that.

MG:      I know we did things like that when I was a student; we’d look for specific things our teacher would ask us to find and they would be compiled at the end of the semester and published.  My teachers did awesome things like that, too, and I’m sure it’s still being done.

EM:      Yeah, if they would only bring it out.  Like Pele and Hi‘iaka...we shouldn’t sit on things, we need to get them out!  I think it’s absolutely necessary that it be translated.  I know Ruby Johnson was working on Pele and Hi‘iaka...somebody ought to do that, because the translations - the original translation at least in the book that I have -- was done by...maybe Emerson? So the English is rather stilted, you know, the 1920s. 

Did you take anything from Richard Hamasaki when you were at Kamehameha?

MG:      No, not that I can think of right now.

EM:      He taught literature.  I’m sure he was there at least five years ago...but his specialty was Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands, so the literature for his class would come from this area.  One year he picked up La‘amaomao and he used it, not in Hawaiian language but English.  So he asked me to come over and field some of the questions by the students because they were asking.  I said, sure, OK...he and Dennis Kawaharada -- Dennis is also an author who is teaching at Kapi‘olani Community College.  So Richard, Dennis, and I got together and Dennis and Richard really wanted to retranslate Lā‘ieikawai, again, because the language is so stilted and they wanted to put it into modern English.  They asked me to"monitor"to make sure that their English was not really off-based as far as the Hawaiian was concerned.   I’m not sure when that will be done, there’s some kind of delay with it. 

MG:      It must be hard when you feel time is of the essence.

EM:      Yeah.  But gosh there’s tons of material in the newspapers! 

MG:      Is there a specific area or time frame that you feel really needs to be looked at or delved into?

EM:      There is one definite newspaper, Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika, Kalākaua’s paper, and  I can’t do it because the print is so small!  Really, really small.  And when you enlarge it, you know it gets blurry.  So I’d like to see that -- somebody did a little bit of an adaptation on that years ago, but there’s no way for me to check back, I can’t read it, the print is too small.

It would be interesting, because you know Kalākaua was the editor, what did he allow to be printed?  Yeah, looking up little articles for 100 years ago to the day for your website is a good idea, I think you should continue that. 

MG:      Sometimes the newspaper collection can be overwhelming.

EM:      Oh yeah! Because it’s got tons of pages!  Just looking through it all...the microfilm is not kind to your eyes!  Do you go to Hamilton to do that? 

MG:      Yes.  There are projects going where they’re putting the newspapers online, so that’s great, but I still use the old machines!

EM:      Oh, they did!  I thought the microfilms were distributed throughout the schools, but I’m not sure.  But that 100 years ago thing I think is very clever.  And some of the newspapers didn’t last very long, like Ka Hoku I think it was something like a year and a half, very short.  Because it’s so short-lived it may mean that there’s something there. 

I read in the paper somewhere that two people from Kamehameha Schools have been awarded a grant of money to research the birthplace of Kamehameha the first.  ‘Upolu Point, Mo‘okini heiau area. Maybe if you could find something like that, but you just have to sit there and look for need time to do things like that.  

There were a number of newspapers that I called "newspapers" that are really journals today, and those I think might be looked into. Mainly because they were journals...what was it, the Maile Quarterly, or something like that...some of it was Hawaiian, I think bi-lingual, and I never took the time out to look into that one. You’ve got an opportunity to put things out there.

MG:      Yes, just have to seize it! [laughing] Are you familiar with "Ke Kula Hanai o Hilo?"  I came across that in the newspapers...

EM:      You know what it is?  It’s the Lyman School for Boys.  That’s what it is.  I didn’t recognize it in the Hawaiian. 

MG:      So that’s why they were talking about "Makua Laimana!"  They said Nāwahī was a luna alaka‘i, and another escapes me now but another really well-known Hawaiian scholar. 

EM:      It was Hilo Boarding School as they called it.   It would be interesting to go through the list of graduates who appeared in some other form, like Nāwahī of course, people like that.  He was politically very active.  Yeah, as soon as you see "Lyman," you know. It was as important a school in Hilo as Pūnāhou here, because they’re both missionary-established.  Of course the Hilo boys couldn’t come to Pūnāhou at that time, I don’t think they would have allowed that.  In the early days it was just for missionary children so you didn’t see any color. 

EM:      Yeah, yeah, that’s a good idea.  Translation is hard because it’s so different.  It’s different.  "Kela Mea, Keia Mea" is really good.  I just never took the time to read what was in them. 

MG:      Similar to what you touched on with the court documents, just slices of life, really interesting some of them.

EM:      Yeah, yeah.  And I often wondered why they took the time out to translate these European stories...?  "Grimm’s Fairy Tales..."  Why did they do that?  Why did they translate those stories?  I never did find out the answer. 

MG:      Just recently I found an article about the first compass done in Hawaiian Language...had a picture and everything. 

EM:      No kidding.

MG:      One of the phrases they said was something like "This compass is an example of how the Hawaiians are a culture that is always moving forward." 

EM:      Mm-hmm.  That’s right. Wow.  They didn’t have that compass.  Interesting.  It just goes to show, I think, that perhaps the Hawaiians were still sailing by the stars.  They didn’t need the compass because they were so ma‘a to the stars and the elements around them.   You really need time to look at it all...Isn’t there a committee, they were being paid, I think...Edith McKinzie headed it up...I think she headed up a group of people to translate everything. 

MG:      Wow.

EM:      Everything.  What a huge project...but they started with Ka Lama Hawai‘i and I heard at the conference that Ruby and another person are doing the kanikau that they find in the newspapers.  I think that’s really great.  There’s a lot of material in there. 

This past summer I helped a woman who’s writing a book on the lepers...and when I heard about Noenoe [Silva] doing that project, I’d like to see if what she has is available. I’d buy it and send it to this woman who is haole but born and raised here.  Lives in New York now.  But she is very much interested in the Hawaiian people and their viewpoint on living in Kalaupapa.  Same thing as Noenoe.  I was told that there was a trial -- near the turn of the century, I think it was 1898 or so, I can’t remember the date now -- but this man was brought in for murder.  He shot to death a Dr. Jared Smith in Kaua‘i because Dr. Smith, being a doctor, told this Hawaiian man... that the murderer’s step-sister and her daughter were supposed to come to Honolulu "to be examined."  It was almost a foregone conclusion that once they left, they were going off to Moloka‘i. 

So this man and his brother, I think it was, decided to take matters into their own hands.  What made them kill the doctor just doesn’t make any sense at all, but he went and got himself drunk and, in the beginning, he wanted to set fire to the cane field that was near the Smiths’ home and blame it on the fire, say that the fire burned the house down.  But the winds were wrong, something went wrong, and he decided well he would just go to the door and when he did, he shot the doctor. 

So I told this woman in New York about that and she said, "Oh, please send me that article and your translation."  I said it has nothing to do with the lepers who went to Moloka‘i, and she said that she wanted to kind of get the entire picture. 

MG:      How horrible, could you imagine living through that time, when they come to take your family members away?

EM: you have any Hawaiian blood?

MG:      Yes, my dad is hapa and my mom is from New York.  I’m also a quarter-Japanese! [laughing]

EM:      Oh, that’s neat. My daughter has quarter-Hawaiian and she always says, "Gee, Mom, it’s too bad you don’t have any!"  [laughing] I have only one child and I’m the only one who’s going this Hawaiian Language route, and I’m not Hawaiian! That’s what she means. [laughing]  My daughter loves going to school.  I think maybe the atmosphere at home had something to do with it, because my husband was always teaching at university and I went through graduate school.  Teaching is not easy!  You’re going to the WIPCE conference in New Zealand, right?

MG:      Yes, in Hamilton.

EM:      I didn’t know this, but I just found out that there’s a distant marae out where Whale Rider was shot.  There’s a marae there with a "whale rider," a whale with a man sitting on it on top of the marae.  Every marae has some figure and that particular one is of the whale rider. The story is a Māori story, that their descendents, at least in that part of New Zealand, can trace their ancestry back to this whale rider who is Pa‘ikea, which is Kamehameha’s nickname.  So Hawaiians that go down there find great comraderie there.  I wanted to go see that marae, but New Zealand is so big! 

MG:      Yeah, that’s what I’ve been told. I can’t wait to go there, this will be my first trip.

KO:       Of course you have to like cold and rain!