Translating Rapanui

Rapanui is considered one of the most diverse languages within Austronesian linguistics. Spoken by around 2,700 people on Easter Island, called Rapa Nui by natives, the language has been conditioned by its ambiguous history and multicultural influences during the thousands of years of its existence. Due to these facts, it is almost impossible to determine the process of adhering new words and linguistic constructions that have influenced this Eastern Polynesian language since it was born.

Rapanui is a very simple language, with only 14 individual sounds in the alphabet (nine consonants, or ten counting the glottal stop, and five vowels) spelled out using the Roman alphabet. Phrasal constructions are logical and understandable. Natives who lived on the island during ancient times were mainly concerned about natural events such as fishing, weather, sea life, volcanoes, growing horses, fruits and vegetables. These elements constituted the logical basis of the Rapanui language.

Proximity of Polynesian languages

Many words and expressions came to Rapanui from the most influential Polynesian languages: Samoan, Hawaiian, Maori, Tahitian and Tongan. Geographically and historically, these countries have similar routes and common migratory trajectories. This is why the spread of Polynesian vocabulary structures between languages was very strong, and Rapanui inherited some vocabulary from more developed nations.

Table 1 compares and contrasts Polynesian language similarities and differences in some of the most commonly-used words in South Islanders’ cultures. Some of the vocabulary is the same for all languages, while the majority underwent transformations or are totally different.

Translation of colors from Rapanui into English

Colors represent a Western concept.  Many languages do not support equivalent terms for colors and are guided by their own color terminology. For example, in certain countries, blue and green represent the same color. Very often national differences in color perceptions are used to underline cultural particularities of a nation.

Depending on a certain language’s age, routes and location, it can have two or more color terms. Certainly every language has two colors — black and white, which are universal. Languages with three color terms usually have a red color in addition. Languages with four color terms use yellow or green and so on.

Since the Rapanui language is antiquated and rather simple, it has three original color terms: black (translated as uriuri), white (teatea) and red (meamea). Green and blue were originally translated with the same word used for black (uriuri). Yellow was usually translated with meamea. Nowadays, however, new translation variations for color terms appear. Some colors are born from nearby languages, especially Tahitian. At the moment, Tahiti has a great impact on Rapanui culture and way of life. In other cases, Rapanui people try to find adequate translations for little tones and color shades based on what they see around them. For example, yellow is translated as toua mamari (literally, egg yolk) and moana is used for the translation of blue and green (moana is a Tahitian word and it means sea). Ritomata refers to green and is literally translated as banana leaves. Hina is a color between gray and white, but it can only be used for a description of elderly people’s hair, so it is not a universal color.

More particular colors have been created on the basis of natural elements noticed by people. Kihikihi is a type of lichen that grows along the coastline of Easter Island. Its light color is usually used to denote the light hair of young children. Hehenga is dawn, which is why the word hengahenga represents the crimson color of the sun at dawn — reduplication is used in this case to form an adjective for color based on the noun it borrows from. Kirikiri means small round pebbles and in addition can describe a multicolored object. Toretore is a striped zebra color, which can also be used for the translation of a rock color.

Therefore, in order to render your translation from Rapanui, a vivid and authentic approach is required.

Translation of proper names and locality names

The Rapanui language is particularly rich in specific names of localities and regions. These are not usually translated into English but it is interesting to know their significance and why they are called what they are. Locality names were gathered during many years based on people’s perception of the world and life experiences.

In order to start the description of some locality names let us introduce basic notions existing to define the land of Rapanui. For example, Ahu (sanctuary, platform) is a location where the famous stone statues stand throughout the island. Hanga is a bay — there are many of these although the island is quite small. Maunga is a mountain, as you already know from Table 1. Ana is a cave. Thus, some amusing locale names would be:

Ahu Runga Va E: sanctuary situated above the feet — runga va e means above the feet.

Ahu Nau Nau: sanctuary where there are a lot of mosquitos around — nau nau is a mosquito.

Ahu Maitaki Te Moa: sanctuary of a clean hen. Maitaki is clean; moa is a hen.

Ahu Vai Mata: sanctuary near raw water. Vai is water; mata is raw.

Hanga Hoonu: Bay with turtles. Hoonu is a turtle.

Hanga Tuu Hata: Bay where spirits come. Tuu hata means arrival of spirits.

Maunga Terevaka: Mountain from where the boats escape. Tere means to escape and vaka is a boat.

Maunga Puhi: Whistling mountain. Puhi is a whistle.

Ana Kai Tangata: Cave that eats people. Kai means to eat; tangata is a man or people.

Vaitea: Locality of white waters. Vai is water and tea is white.

Translation of nouns and verbs 

Sometimes the simplicity of the Rapanui language may be tricky for translators who are used to dealing with complicated and detailed language structures. Many European languages, for example, have similar structures for words and phrases that make them easier to translate.

A Rapanui word can be a verb, a noun, an adjective and a participle at the same time. For example, the word kai means food, eating and to eat. In Ana Kai Tangata (the cave that eats people) kai is a verb. In Te kai nui (abundant food) kai is a noun.

Nouns do not have gender. Separate a words should be added to each animated object in order to express word’s gender: these would be tamaaroa or hua (masculine) and tamahahine or uha (feminine). This makes phrase constructions heavier, but it is certainly easier for translators as they do not need to remember the gender of each word.

Rapanui verbs have aspects that express the tense and mood of the verb. There are four verb aspects named according to the suffix added to the verb): He, E, Ku, I. He is general and can express present, participle and indefinite. E is continuous or future. Ku mostly reflects perfect tense. I is used in subordinate phrases.

Conditions are expressed by suffixes ana (possible ones) and ahani (impossible ones). In imperative phrases, the particle ka is mostly used. Adding a suffix, prefix or particle should not change the structure of the sentence. Each word has its place, which renders Rapanui comprehensible and precise.

Rapanui is principally based on suffixes, prefixes and auxiliary words.  Word and sentence structures are simple and rough.  In order to translate it precisely one should keep the sentence structure clear and understandable; make correct use of suffixes, prefixes and particles in order to express aspect of the verb and the sentence as a whole; pay attention to the apostrophes — used to denote glottal stops — as they change the meaning of things completely; and make sure that subordinates are translated in the correct aspect.

Commercial translation

Rapanui is spoken primarily on Easter Island, whose total population is under 4,000 people. There are also speakers on the Chilean mainland who identify as ethnically Rapa Nui. There is limited opportunity to spread it farther, as there is little to no need for it in other countries.  However, the island itself is a unique place where people come from all over the world to discover its rich history and culture. Each month university groups and individual professionals come to Easter Island. They study its culture and language and provide written documents to their local authorities — books, articles, monographs (both in Spanish, Rapanui and sometimes, if needed for international purposes, in English). Some of them stay on the island to work as translators or professors; meanwhile they study the Rapanui language and history, and translate current documents and books issued by native people.

Every year, the government of Chile organizes projects connected with the development of the Rapanui native culture and language. For example, this year a musical school called Toki is being constructed in order to let native young people access musical education on various disciplines.

Local television broadcasts programs on Rapanui and Spanish languages for a better accessibility. It helps to transmit all the information for both Rapanui and Chilean people. The commercial purpose of Rapanui is limited, but has spread overseas as some of the museums and libraries in New Zealand and Hawaii have documents and books in Rapanui, as they maintain close connections with the museums on Easter Island and all islands belonging to Polynesia.