The Life of the Land is Lost in Translation by Daniel Fan

hawaii-flag2 copyOn January 16, 1893, 162 American sailors and Marines sallied forth from the USS Boston and took up positions around American installations in Honolulu.  Without firing a shot, this intervention changed the history of the Hawaiian people forever. 

In the months prior to the January 16th invasion, monarch Queen Lili’uokolani sought to amend the Hawaiian Constitution in an effort to restore native rights and sovereignty.  Six years earlier, her brother and predecessor, David Kalakaua, was forced by what amounted to a white settler aristocracy into signing the “Bayonet Constitution” which stripped the monarchy of its powers, installed a white-led legislature and disenfranchised natives, Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos and pretty much anyone who wasn’t white.  Queen Lili’uokolani’s proposed reforms had broad public support from the majority of Hawaiian citizens, except for those in the Euro-American landed “Reform Party” (a.k.a. Missionary Party”). 

Alarmed by overwhelming evidence of an imminent coup attempt against the Queen, the Royal Guard assembled, with a final count of slightly less than 500 volunteers and Hawaiian regulars.  They were opposed by 1,500 “Honolulu Rifles,” white militiamen who owed their allegiance to the now insurgent Reform Party.

Sensing the danger of open, armed conflict in the city streets with not only the Honolulu Rifles, but also the US military, Queen Lili’uokolani ordered Hawaiian forces to stand down and voluntarily abdicated her throne: 

“…I yield to the superior force of the United States of America…Now to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life, I do this under protest and impelled by said force yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representatives and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the Constitutional Sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”

On January 17th 1893, the Hawaiian flag was lowered from Iolani Palace.  It was cut to pieces and the scraps distributed to various participants as trophies and souvenirs.

Though shocking at the time, the Queen’s abdication was neither impotent, nor unprecedented.  Even if Hawaiian loyalists could have defeated the Honolulu Rifles, they would not have been able to enter the US consulate and arrest Reform Party coup leaders without risking open war with the militarily superior United States.  Furthermore, in an earlier episode, Kamehameha III was deposed by British military forces for a six month period in 1843.  This illegal occupation was ended by British recognizance, though the chief perpetrator, Lord George Paulett, was never punished.

It was upon his return to the throne on July 31st 1843, known as “Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea” that Kamehameha III stated the phrase:

Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono” – sometimes translated as “The life of the land (or state) is renewed through righteousness.” 

This phrase would become the motto for both the Republic of Hawai’i and the state of Hawaii. 

At the time, the restoration of Kamehameha III was seen as vindication for the legitimacy of the Hawaiian monarchy.  Doubtless Queen Lili’uokolani hoped for a similar outcome.  It never came.  Hawai’i languished as a pro-American independent republic for four years until pro-imperialist President William McKinley was elected and ushered Hawaii into the union as a US territory in 1898.  Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States in 1959.

In 1993, President William Jefferson Clinton signed the both ambiguously and ironically named United States Public Law 103-150, also known as the “Apology Resolution” which stated, in part:

…the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii occurred with the active participation of agents and citizens of the United States and further acknowledges that the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through the Kingdom of Hawaii or through a plebiscite or referendum. 

Despite its title as “law” this statement had no binding effect on the US Government or the State of Hawaii.  Nor did it return lands or sovereignty to the people of Hawai’i, or make provisions for any form of restitution. 

One hundred and twenty years after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, various indigenous peoples of North America, including at least one olelo speaker from Hawaii, would gather in Toronto, Canada for the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS) 2013 symposium to discuss the importance of translation. 

Cree scholar and researcher Catherine Aldred, in her paper “Rhetoric, Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning” explained Paul Ricoeur’s theory of “Surplus of Meaning.”  In short, words are only symbols of actions, concepts and objects.  For example, the word “water” isn’t water: it does not possess any of the life-giving properties of water, nor does it maintain the same atomic configuration of water.  Similarly, the word “wet” does not bestow wetness upon the reader.  These words are merely representations of lesser magnitude for that which they represent. 

In a similar fashion, let us examine “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono” for meanings and perhaps, colonial biases.  We will concentrate on two words: ʻāina, and pono.

ʻĀina is variously translated “kingdom” or “state” or “land.”  However, as with most translations, meanings can be unintentionally biased or purposefully skewed.  “Kingdom” may have been a politically expedient translation during the reign of Kamehameha III and subsequent monarchs, but the word ʻāina does not have political or autocratic connotations.  ʻĀina is also not equivalent to “state,” either in a sense of an entity with political agency, or as a province of a larger country.  Nor is the translation “land” perfectly accurate.  ʻĀina at its heart means life-giving-land.  This is in contrast to the word moku which connotes land that does not support life (barren rocks, lava plains, etc).   Such a distinction would not have been lost on the Kanaka Maoli, who depended entirely on their ʻāina, growing kalo from their loi (taro patches) and harvesting kappa bark to pound into cloth. 

Pono is most often translated as “righteousness.”  But there again, English fails us.  Perhaps the strongest objection to this translation is that the entirety of pono cannot be encapsulated in a single English word.  Pono is similar to the Hebrew word Shalom.  Pono is also a perfect example of Ricoeur’s “surplus of meaning” since the Hawaiian term includes a multiplicity of other values including peace, justice, physical and spiritual well-being, and most importantly, healthy community.  Indeed, a floor inscription in Honolulu Airport translates pono not as righteousness, but as “justice.” 

Pono is a word that must be translated within its native Kanaka Maoli context in order to be accurately understood.  Ancient Hawaiians lived in community and pono reflected their highest ideal.  Therefore, pono is a value which cannot be pursued or achieved individually.  Again, the English word “righteousness” misses the mark, and perhaps even deceives us—as righteousness can be pursued, and even pursued to the detriment of others, in isolation.  Indeed, there is no Hawaiian word for individual righteousness and it could be argued that, within the Hawaiian context, “individual righteousness” is an oxymoron. If pono is righteousness, it is a collective righteousness.  If pono is justice, it is a collective justice.  To translate pono exclusively as “righteousness” would be as problematic as translating the Hebrew shalom simply and exclusively as “the absence of state-sanctioned warfare.”

The translation of pono as righteousness has not been without consequence. 

Hawaiian olelo: “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono

Limited English translation: “The life of the state is renewed through righteousness.”

Expanded English translation: “The vitality of the live-giving-land is renewed through      collective peace, justice, health, and communal well-being.”

When the Kanaka Maoli say and hear “pono” they mean something different, greater, and far more holistic than individual righteousness.  Conversely as settler colonials translate pono simply into “righteousness,” they are free to ignore the systemic militarization of the Hawaiian Islands*, their illegitimate coercion into the United States, historical cultural suppression of the Kanaka Maoli, theft of and desecration of ancestral lands, rampant health issues within its native population (rez syndrome: obesity, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, etc),  unemployment, and economic disparity between the colonized and the colonizers.  When translated without cultural context of relation to land, terms like pono, and even ʻāina, come to have much more ambiguous, limited, and even coercible meanings.

Kamehameha III’s statement is vanana: prophecy.  How could it not be when Leviticus 18:28 promises us that the land will vomit us out for defiling it?  When they were first uttered, Kamehameha III’s words were a jubilant confirmation of a people’s right to self-determination.  But the Kanaka Maoli were overthrown.  By us.  Now these words serve as a warning.  Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono will stand as prophecy regardless of whether our translation strips it of all substance, but we may not stand for long in that same absence of meaning.  The United States now occupies Hawai’i—and neither our ignorance of the meaning of these words, nor a willful mistranslation will protect us from the consequences of failing to pursue pono as the Kanaka Maoli have tried to teach us.


*Hawai’i is one of the most militarized states in the United States.  It is home to several large military bases: Pearl Harbor naval base, Kaneohe Marine Corp Air Station, Hickam Airbase, Schofield Barracks/ Wheeler Army Airfield, Bellows Airforce station, Naval Air station Barber’s Point, various missile tracking facilities including Barking Sands, on Kauai, various other smaller military reservations, and one National Security Agency facility.  The warfighting capability contained within the state of Hawai’i probably exceeds that of most other states.  If there is a state which embodies si vis pacem, para bellum, Hawai’i would no doubt be a good example.

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One Response to The Life of the Land is Lost in Translation by Daniel Fan

  1. I very much enjoyed this article and would like to correspond with Daniel Fan about it.

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