How LSPs Can Contribute
to Language Conservation

By Malena Duchovny

A matter of principle

“If we don’t do this, we don’t have integrity,” Ke’alohi Reppun, a specialist of Hawaiian language and culture, said to her team of linguists. But not before she said the same thing to herself.

Two years ago, she started to get email after email asking her to translate English texts into Hawaiian. The trickle soon became a flood, and she realized why: The government had finally started to enforce the requirement that healthcare documentation be available both in English and Hawaiian.

Ke’alohi had very little translation experience and even less available time to take on more work. Among other things, she is the director of the Kuaihelani Learning Center for ʻIke Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian knowledge) at Punahou School. And, together with a group of friends and colleagues, she helped to establish and teaches with Kauluwao, Inc. a nonprofit that focuses on language and culture development for Hawaiian immersion schoolteachers. But there was something about the email from one LSP, Akorbi, that stood out.

By that point, the company had been looking for Hawaiian translators for months, with no luck. The vendor management team happened to come across her name as the translator in a Hawaiian website and contacted her right away. She was reluctant at first, because she was already spread so thin.

“I said no to all of them except Akorbi. I looked into the company, and it interested me as a woman-owned company. I got personalized responses to my inquiries, so I decided to help out,” Ke’alohi said.

What followed was a complex translation process involving many hours of research, heaps of linguistic creativity, and above all, a fierce passion for Hawaiian language.

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A bit of context

As of 1978, Hawaiian is an official language of the state of Hawaii, as it was for most of the 19th century. But the US’s colonization of the islands in the 1890s quickly led to Ōlelo Hawai’i’s suppression. After the US overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy and dethroned the queen, a new constitution stated that English would be the only language of instruction in the territory’s schools.

Hawaiian was, of course, still spoken throughout the islands. But as the decades went by, there were fewer and fewer speakers, and the language became mired, stuck in time. Many decades later, the protests against the eviction of native farmers from Kalama Valley sparked the Hawaiian Renaissance, a movement that brought Hawaiian culture to the fore. Not long after, the first Hawaiian immersion school, or “nest school,” was created to give new life to the language.

Ke’alohi was born and raised in this context. As a teenager, she traveled to New Zealand on an academic exchange. During one of the activities, she introduced herself in English, as she’d been accustomed to doing. In response, a local kid quipped that she should do it “in her language”. She told him her language was English, but the interaction stuck in her mind: There was another language, native to her place of birth, that she knew nothing about. Ke’alohi ended up double-majoring in Hawaiian studies and psychology. After that, she started teaching at a nest school, while getting her masters in Hawaiian language and literature, a certificate in indigenous education and, later on, an EdD (a doctorate in education).

Ke’alohi has devoted her adult life to the preservation and development of the Hawaiian language.

“To change the culture of this school and to know that it has an influence on the world. This could be my contribution to making schools take Hawaiian seriously,” Ke’alohi said about Punahou School, where she currently works (and where Obama studied). This dedication is what led her to ultimately work on healthcare content translation — and what she used to inspire the team of translators she helped onboard.

“Healthcare companies were starting to complain that abiding by the Hawaiian language requirement for healthcare was impossible because there weren’t enough resources available. They were saying it shouldn’t be enforced. I started to feel guilty, and I eventually decided that the cost was too great not to do it. When I gathered a team, I told them: ‘We have a responsibility to do this. All our work is promoting Hawaiian language, so if we don’t do this, we don’t have integrity,’” Ke’alohi recalls.

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Translations, termbases, and trainings

Ke’alohi was hired to collaborate on a project to translate medical documentation. In order to translate these documents, which are highly technical and standardized, the company decided to put a termbase in place. The idea of the termbase is to provide translators with a simple, clear-cut definition of a concept that would probably take a lot of research to understand, as well as a standard translation that ensures consistency. Thus, a termbase improves both turnaround times and the quality of the finished product.

The terminology team’s usual time estimate for translation went out the window with Hawaiian, which, as Ke’alohi points out, is stuck in the early 1900s.

“All these cultural things that evolved in the meantime — Hawaiian did not evolve alongside them,” she said. “Healthcare terminology now is very nuanced. Words like ‘copay’ and ‘coinsurance’ are very similar but have different nuances. We do not have the concepts for them. There is no foundational language to conceptualize these ideas. We have to reconstruct, use modern ideas to create new words.”

One example that stood out to her was ADHD.

“I feel like I learned a lot about what things existed when Hawaiian was being used,” she said. “ADHD is now a concept, and it wasn’t before, even though attention problems were probably already there 100 years ago.”

To translate a word, Ke’alohi and her team first had to deeply understand the concept and then find the language. After doing a lot of English-language research, they would go through their repository, which contains hundreds of newspapers, and test their ideas against the real-world examples found there. Then they had to decide how to go about creating the Hawaiian translation. Should they create a new word? Transcribe the English sounds? Carry the English term over?

“The technique that we generally used was to understand a concept and then assign a traditional word (or variant of a word) to it. When we couldn’t do it, we carried the English over,” Ke’alohi said.

All this, while keeping in mind that this had to be comprehensible to regular people — not just Hawaiian philology experts.

In fact, Ke’alohi and her team of linguists all came from academic settings but were new to translation and all the tools involved. So, before work could start, the company organized a series of trainings that covered everything from CAT tools to translation memories, termbases, revision workflows, and client-specific requirements. Ke’alohi helped with organizing the Hawaiian team so that their tasks were aligned with their expertise. They worked wonderfully well, getting together as a group to help each other with their doubts.

Conservancy and development

A language that is alive is a language that is in permanent flux. According to data released by the US Census Bureau in 2015, from its 2009-2013 American Community Survey (ACS), there are around 18,000 people who speak Hawaiian in their homes in the state of Hawaii. This number puts the language behind Tagalog, Ilocano, Japanese, and Spanish. The Endangered Languages project, managed by First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the Endangered Languages Project team at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, classifies Hawaiian as “severely endangered.”

The critical status of Hawaiian, however, cannot be solved by merely translating into the language. The first thing Ke’alohi did for the company was review the work that had already been done before her onboarding. She saw that, while the Hawaiian versions were technically correct, something was getting lost in the translation.

“There was very little cultural knowledge or nuance,” Ke’alohi said.

The problem here, she says, is one of cultural atrophy, because even when the words are Hawaiian, many times you can tell that the thoughts and patterns are in English.

Being aware of the traditions and history of Hawaiian is integral to its revitalization. That is why the work of Ke’alohi and her team requires so much time — time to sift through Hawaii’s past and use it to fortify its present condition. Ke’alohi is aware that not every one of her solutions will stand the test of time, but she still wanted to do the best she could.

“In five years people might come up with completely different solutions,” she said.

She felt incredibly responsible for the work she did, and this showed in the care and dedication she put into the work.

“If we don’t rise to the occasion to help do this work, we might get pushback on the law itself which will then undermine the work we’ve been trying to do,” she said.

Having such committed partners is the first step in being able to provide clients with high-quality translations in low-resource languages. The Akorbi team is delighted to be at least a small part of the ongoing effort to keep Hawaiian growing and evolving, as they also do with languages like Ilocano and Samoan. In the story of this collaboration, one can find a real-life example of how language services providers can have an impact on the status of endangered languages.

Malena Duchovny is a published writer and terminologist from Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is a source terminologist for Akorbi.

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