People often ask me what their name is in Hawaiian. The request isn’t as odd as it sounds; if you’ve ever traveled to Hawaii, I’m sure you were overwhelmed with all the kitsch offered in stores personalized with Your Hawaiian Name Here!, everything from cheap plastic placemats to high-end solid gold jewelry. It’s a source of endless fascination for tourists who want to make a connection with something exotic.
Unfortunately, the idea of plug and go translations of non-Hawaiian names into Hawaiian is also among biggest shibai exports about Hawaiian culture, right next to pineapple on pizza and coconut bras.
Back in the 1800s, when missionaries translated spoken Hawaiian into a written language, they used only 12 letters of the English alphabet (a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, p, w) and added two punctuation marks (the kahakō and ‘okina) to help convey the way a word is pronounced. In addition to using only half of the English alphabet, Hawaiian words never contain two consonants together and never end in a consonant. To the English speaker, it’s all a bunch of broken and elongated vowel sounds sprinkled with a random h, k, or m.
Which got some akamai kanaka thinking: if I can come up with an easy and consistent way to take non-Hawaiian names and give them a Hawaiian twist, I’ll laugh all the way to the bank. Developed over 150 years ago, most non-Hawaiian to Hawaiian name translations are based on a simple letter/sound substitution system that doesn’t allow double consonants or consonant endings. This hidden system gives the illusion of authenticity and explains why name translations are so consistent across various sources and so consistently wrong.
Take Katherine, for example. It’s my mother’s name and a source of endless amusement to my part-Hawaiian father. “Katherine” is “Kakalina” in Your Hawaiian Name Here! translations. It’s also the Hawaiian word for gasoline, super hilarious in a couple of pau hana beers way since my Dad worked for Chevron in Hawaii and later owned a gas station. In typical Hawaiian tradition, he gave her expensive gold bracelets, rings, and necklaces all proudly proclaiming Kakalina in black enameled script. He said that way he could write them off as advertising.
Most of the time the Hawaiian name translations result in pure gibberish. Most of the time. Sometimes they are pee your pants hilarious to those who know a little of the language, making my mother’s gasoline jewelry look merely quaint.
All of which is too bad, really, when you understand the importance names hold in Hawaiian culture. Real Hawaiian names are a sacred, serious business that require much thought, prayer, and consultation among family and friends before being bestowed. (More on this in an upcoming blog.)
If someone really wants to know what his or her name is in Hawaiian, I’ll ask for the origin and meaning behind the name and look for a comparable Hawaiian word or phrase.
Katherine is Greek in origin and is often translated as “pure.” Hemolele is a Hawaiian word with connotations of flawless, holy, saintly, pure in heart, complete, and person without fault—far more beautiful and accurate for my mother than gasoline.
When it comes to Hawaiian names, keep in mind that Hawaiian words are highly poetic and layered in meaning; things are not always what they seem. It also pays to know who you’re asking. When pestered once too often at a family party on the mainland, Mr. Hilarious once told a nephew that his name in Hawaiian was ‘Okole, which is what my cousin told his friends to call him. Years later when I met up with this cousin and some of his friends, I had to pull him aside and tell him he needed a new nickname. He’d been the literal butt of my father’s joke long enough.