Mo‘olelo Hawai‘i: Literature, History, and Translation

Hawai‘i was an almost universally-literate nation during the Kingdom era, and its citizens created thousands upon thousands of pages of Hawaiian-language mo‘olelo and literary works. These texts including everything from impassioned nationalist speeches to descriptions of fishing and navigation to legends about shape-shifting, chicken-stealing pigs. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, the power and prestige of the Hawaiian language declined drastically, and the language itself came close to extinction, meaning that fewer and fewer people were able to read these literary works. Though there has been an amazing resurgence in the language over the last few decades, a significant number of us must rely on the work of translators to access these texts. Some of these translators were very supportive of Hawaiian political aims and goals, while others were not. In this class, we will read several mo‘olelo translated from the Hawaiian-language newspapers and examine the way that translators and the act of translation have shaped, often invisibly, our understandings of not just these stories but of Hawaiian history itself.

Class participation in in-class discussions and Laulima postings, an oral presentation on a text or theme discussed in class, and a panel presentation of a text/author/issue. You will also be asked to write two formal essays (6-8 pages in length). You will also need to attend a community event related to the themes of the class. Lastly, there will be a mid-term and a non-cumulative final.


A tentative list of the texts we will be reading may include:

  • THE TRUE STORY OF KALUAIKOOLAU written by Kahikina Kelekona and translated by Frances Frazier
  • A LEGENDARY TRADITION OF KAMAPUAA translated by Lilikala Kameeleihiwa
  • THE WIND GOURD OF LAAMAOMAO written by Moses Nakuina translated by Ester Mookini and Sarah Nakoa
  • LAIEIKAWAI written by S. N. Haleole and translated by Martha Beckwith
  • various articles translated from the Hawaiian-language newspapers
  • various scholarly articles from THE TRANSLATION STUDIES READER
  • and Abraham Fornander’s collection.

The major texts we will be reading will be available at Native Books.