Legal History and Archives Update

Legal History and Archives Update: Translating Legal Documents

Avis Kuuipoleialoha Poai, Director of Archives and Legal History

 Aloha! As part of my work on expanding and updating Punawaiola, Ka Huli Ao’s digital archives repository, I have the privilege of working closely with many different legal archival documents stored at the Hawaiʻi State Archives. Some are quite rare and provide an interesting glimpse into Hawaiʻi’s legal history. The sheer scope of what is available is overwhelming. Collectively, many of these sources hold a wealth of information that people want to access.

In terms of providing online access, we are currently hard at work in revamping our current database and website. Indeed, we hope to nearly double the amount of available files on Punawaiola in the near future.

However, some of the most valuable archival legal materials are in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. For many, this is an insurmountable barrier—even with Hawaiian language experience. In this issue, I would like to discuss this particular issue and how Ka Huli Ao hopes to provide better support for those who seek to access these materials.

Lost in Translation:

Translating legal documents is considered the most difficult of all technical translations for good reason. This is because translating legal documents demands accuracy and precision.  The mistranslation of a single word could lead to a multi-million dollar lawsuit or the loss of ancestral land—it could even mean the difference between life or death.  Thus, legal translation necessitates the ethical services of an expert that is: (1) knowledgeable in legal terminology; (2) competent in the target language’s legal writing style; and (3) demonstrates a thorough understanding of the legal system of both the target and source languages.* It is often said that a professional legal translator must be “part detective, legal scholar, and linguist” due to the amount of research necessary to decode the source and thereafter produce an accurate translation. The sentiment that is often expressed is, “it isn’t a matter of if you will make a mistake, it is a matter of when.”

Problems in translation occur all the time, even for those who are highly experienced language experts. Below is a digitized image of an excerpt from a Honolulu District Court Minutebook.

Below is a digitized image of an excerpt of a translation completed by non-legally trained translators but with extensive Hawaiian language experience:

A closer legal translation would be as follows:

King vs. Kaili (f),

  • Honolulu 10 Jan. 1860
  • Contempt, Obstruction and Perverting the Course of Justice
  • Judge: Did you obstruct or pervert (the course of justice – Are you guilty of contempt)?
  • Because of the lack of preparation [by the King’s side], she was released.
  • J.Kaona

To arrive at this translation, careful legal research was necessary. Multiple primary legal sources were consulted to confirm that the pair of words, hoʻokē and hoʻokāpae were correctly attributed to the legal concept of “contempt” or “obstruction and perverting the course of justice.” Similarly, careful research was necessary to confirm that hemahema was never used to describe “incompetency”—in fact, other terms like pupule or hehena were used.

In the past, only skilled researchers and archivists knew how to find and access source materials that would give them the tools necessary to solve a given problem. My colleagues and I have been researching at the Hawaiʻi State Archives for over a decade and we are still astonished at the “new” collections and materials that we discover. Most importantly, the depth and richness of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi legal sources provide tantalizing insights to our history, culture, and language.

Ka Huli Ao is committed to providing access to these “hidden” historical legal materials. By doing so, not only does it provide access to our cultural past, it also allows us to seek equal access to justice today. The archives is not simply a place that preserves the past—it gives us valuable knowledge so we know how to proceed today with diligence, care, and forethought. I ka wā ma mua, i ka wā ma hope.

*A forthcoming article will be published on this topic. I have drawn inspiration and insight from a recent book entitled, “The Ashgate Handbook of Legal Translation” edited by Le Cheng, King Kui sin, and Anne Wagner.