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Original ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i versions of law would be held binding with new measure

Mark Knoke

For more than 150 years, the law of the land in Hawaiʻi has been in English. Courts have favored the English translation of law — even if they were originally drafted in the Hawaiian language.

Now, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require that the original ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi version of a law be held binding instead.

Senate Bill 16 would require that the Hawaiian or an ‘Ōlelo Hawaiʻi version of a law be held binding if the law in question was originally drafted in Hawaiian and then translated into English.

In Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiian and English languages are both official state languages.

"But the current statute says that the English version is always the 'official, official' version. And that didn’t seem right to me," said Senate Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads, who introduced the bill.

Rhoads introduced a bill back in 2019 that was written entirely in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi. The bill stalled in the House, but he said it was an exercise in bringing both languages toward parity.

"Well, it could come up if we had to look at laws from the Kingdom for example. Or since Hawaiian is an official language, you could conceivably have bills introduced in Hawaiian now and that would be the original," he said.

There was a time, however, when ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi was the legally binding language in the islands, said UH law professor Troy Andrade.

"From the early 1800s you see the Kingdom Supreme Court looking at these disputes. As an example, there was a case called Metcalf v. Kahaʻi," Andrade said. "And the court there said, 'It is the practice of this Kingdom that the Hawaiian version is going to be prevalent' and we're going to follow that."

But by 1859, the growing influence of the English language in Hawaiʻi led the legislature of the Hawaiian Kingdom to enact a law making all English versions binding. That could change if Hawaiʻi lawmakers approve Senate Bill 16.

The measure is awaiting a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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