Meet the Muggle Translating the “Harry Potter” Books into the Hawaiian Language

Local translator Keao NeSmith has translated the first Harry Potter book in Hawaiian—with plans to finish the whole series, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.


When we first heard that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—the U.K. version of the first book in our favorite young adult fantasy series—had been translated into Hawaiian, our first thought was:


Ron Weasley

Image: Giphy



… quickly followed by “how?” So, we immediately sent an owl to the Muggle behind the magic, local translator Keao NeSmith, and asked him all of our burning questions about Harry Potter a Me Ka Pōhaku Akeakamai.


HONOLULU Magazine: Would you mind telling us a little about yourself, including how you learned Hawaiian?

Keao NeSmith: It’s not my first language—it’s my second language. But I picked it up from my grandmother, primarily, living with her and also from my neighbors on Kaua‘i who are from Ni‘ihau.


HM: So, did you have to spend more time learning it on your own?

KN: No. I did go to UH Hilo in the ’90s and I did major in Hawaiian studies, but I was already fluent before I got there.


HM: How did you get started with translating these books? Was it your idea or did someone approach you?

KN: I had been teaching Hawaiian language at UH Mānoa since ’97, although I took a break for a couple of years in between. Back in 2010, our department received an email from a publisher (Evertype’s Michael Everson) who was looking to translate Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it sounded interesting to me, so I answered the email. I ended up doing that book and then the second Alice book, Through the Looking Glass.


Then, while I was doing that, a publisher in Germany that publishes The Little Prince found out somehow that I had done Alice. So, they contacted me via email and asked if I would translate Prince. At the same time, the publisher behind Alice asked if I would do The Hobbit. I said no, initially, but he kept working on me and after a year I gave in and finally did The Hobbit. While I was doing that, he suggested Harry Potter and I said, “why not?”


SEE ALSO: The ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i Versions of Harry Potter and Other Literary Classics Are Perfect Gifts This Holiday Season


Harry Potter in Hawaiian

Image: Courtesy of Keao Nesmith


[Everson] is interested in publishing in languages that are endangered; he publishes in languages you’ve never even heard of before. So, he took a real interest in the Hawaiian language.


HM: Could you describe your process? Do you read the whole book first in English or do you just translate as you go?

KN: I translate as I go. I ask for the text in Word format—actually, for Harry Potter, I didn’t get the Word file. I had to translate from the book itself. I had the book on the table to the left of my laptop as I was typing.


For The Hobbit and the other books, I split the document into two columns. As I’m reading the English text on the left-hand side, I’m actually reading for the first time but my fingers are doing their own thing on the right.


Harry Potter was more difficult. When you have it as an electronic file, you can search and skim through; if I forgot what word I’d used for a certain thing, I could search for it. But if I’m reading from a book, I can’t do that. So that part was a challenge.


HM: How long did it take you to translate Harry Potter?

KN: About a month and a half. I did The Hobbit in about the same amount of time. Then I took a trip to Orlando—to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—and that helped make it real for me because I’d never read any of the Harry Potter books at all. Actually, for all of the books that I translated, I’d never read any of them until I did the translation.


SEE ALSO: Disney’s Moana (and Auli‘i Cravalho) Hit a New High Note—in Hawaiian


Harry Potter

The first page of the first chapter in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone translated into Hawaiian.



HM: J.K. Rowling made up a lot of the words in the book, such as “Quidditch.” Did you leave them as is or did you try to find a similar word in Hawaiian?

KN: To me, that was the fun part. I love the mental jungle gym, as I like to call it. The spells that are in Latin are left in Latin. The ones in English got changed to Hawaiian, like the one where Ron tries to turn his rat yellow (“Sunshine, daisies, butter mellow, turn this stupid, fat rat yellow”). Names of people were left as is—and I considered centaurs people—but names of creatures were changed to Hawaiian. Fluffy, the three-headed dog, is Peto Huluhulu. Hedwig, Harry’s owl, is Lehua.


An interesting plus is that I got to reuse terms I created for creatures in previous books I translated (particularly Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit) since such things as goblins, trolls and dormice appear in those books as well. Then I got to create terms for centaurs, werewolves and vampires for Harry Potter since the Hawaiian language did not have terms for those before.


I relied on my native speaker friends from Ni‘ihau for terms like “dreadlocks,” and had to do some research in order to come up with terms for certain plants that are mentioned. The terms for the different balls in Quidditch (bludger, quaffle), as well as the term Quidditch itself, were left as is.



Image: Giphy



HM: And will you be translating the rest of the Harry Potter books or will you be stopping with the first one?

KN: Oh my gosh, it’s not just that. It’s the entire series, plus the entire series of The Hobbit. I’ve already started The Lord of the Rings but I put it down because it’s so big. You want to know what else I’m doing? I’m working on The Chronicles of Narnia.


I haven’t started the second Harry Potter yet, but I had a long conversation with my publisher about a couple of the terms, such as “house elf,” because, how are you supposed to translate house elf? It’s not the same [type of] elf as in The Hobbit.


(Spoiler alert: They settled on a term derived from the Hawaiian term Mu, which is a type of people in Hawaiian legend, combined with the word for “house,” hale.)


HM: What do you hope will come out of translating these books into Hawaiian?

KN: Books like Harry Potter a Me Ka Pōhaku Akeakamai are contributing to the kind of support the Hawaiian language needs in this day and age. I think the majority of people who pick up a copy of Harry Potter will need a lot of help just to read it, such as looking up terms in the Pukui-Elbert Dictionary. It’ll be a different experience from picking up a novel in English and reading it without pausing frequently to pick up Webster’s Dictionary just to understand the text.


For Hawaiian speakers today, a lot of time, energy and even frustration will go into trying to understand the text; the enjoyment factor becomes secondary. The dream of a Hawaiian-speaking or multilingual society, as it was a century ago, is a powerful motivating factor. I hope the cool factor of the Hawaiian language will rise a bit with the release of Harry Potter.


Harry Potter a Me Ka Pōhaku Akeakamai can be purchased online and from Nā Mea Hawaiʻi/Native Books in Ward Village. Read more about NeSmith’s translation process in the December issue of HONOLULU Magazine.