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  • Legendary Hawai‘i and the Politics of Place: Tradition, Translation, and Tourism
  • Karen K. Kosasa
Legendary Hawai‘i and the Politics of Place: Tradition, Translation, and Tourism, by Cristina Bacchilega. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. ISBN cloth, 978-0-8122-3975-1; xii + 230 pages, black-and-white photographs, bibliography, notes, index. Cloth, US$49.95.

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In the preface of Legendary Hawai‘i and the Politics of Place: Tradition, Translation, and Tourism, author Cristina Bacchilega warns the reader that her book is not about Hawaiian legends. It is focused on critically examining the historic and contemporary production of legendary Hawai‘i—English-language translations of Hawaiian mo‘olelo (stories) published in popular magazines and books beginning in the late nineteenth century. According to Bacchilega, the translated mo‘olelo strategically served the needs of the settler culture. They conjured up alluring and non-threatening images of the Islands that were important to the nascent tourist industry. They were also mistakenly associated with Western conceptions of legends, myths, and fairy tales from the past and were hence misunderstood and trivialized. Even today, non-Hawaiian readers are largely unaware of the differences between traditional mo‘olelo and their translations and are unable to appreciate the ways the original stories conveyed cultural, genealogical, and historical information through a range of storytelling practices. To address this settler ignorance, Bacchilega chronicles the production of this particular genre of settler translations, analyzes important features of its texts, and underscores the political repercussions of its legacy.

After 1898, when Hawai‘i became a territory of the United States, the production of legendary Hawai‘i intensified. Taking advantage of new printing technologies, publishers illustrated stories with attractive photographic reproductions of scenery and people, which helped market Hawai‘i as an elite travel destination. This pairing of text and imagery, often published by the Hawaii Promotions Committee (established in 1903), contributed to the creation of a new colonial imaginary with far-reaching consequences. As the production of translated stories increased, settlers began to see themselves as the experts on Native life while Hawaiians became the informants. This erosion of Native authority paralleled the displacement of Native Hawaiians from the land—an issue that remains pertinent to contentious discussions over Hawaiian sovereignty initiatives and land claims today. Although the stories of legendary Hawai‘i were not written exclusively by or for non-Hawaiians, they served “primarily non-Hawaiian interests at a crucial political juncture” (6). They thus reinforced the ideological beliefs of settlers who supported the 1898 annexation of Hawai‘i, the pivotal moment when Hawai‘i became a colony of the United States (or an occupied nation, according to a number of Hawaiian scholars).

Bacchilega’s project joins those of other settler writers focused on Hawai‘i’s colonial histories, such as Gaye Chan, Andrea Feeser, Cynthia Franklin, Candace Fujikane, Eiko Kosasa, Laura Lyons, Paul Lyons, Jonathan Okamura, Sally E Merry, Judy Rohrer, and Houston Wood. As a professor of English at the University [End Page 532] of Hawai‘i, Bacchilega uses her expertise in translation and folklore studies to scrutinize the rhetorical strategies of legendary Hawai‘i. She identifies herself as a malihini (newcomer) and non-Native scholar with limited knowledge of the Native Hawaiian culture and language. Despite an impressive command of the latter, her admission reflects an intention to locate her project within (and not outside of) a history of colonial translations. While many of the historic translators eliminated the meaning of history from the word “mo‘olelo,” her objective is to recover it. To guide her re-vision of Hawai‘i as an indigenous storied place, she turns to the work of Hawaiian scholars.

Bacchilega begins her analysis not in the late nineteenth century but in the present with a text that reframed her understanding of land in Hawai‘i: Anne Kapulani Landgraf’s Nā Wahi Pana O Ko‘olau Poko (University of Hawai‘i Press, 1994). Although Landgraf’s project may resemble other books on landscape photography, for Bacchilega it offers a different conception of nature. Each photograph is accompanied by a text in Hawaiian and an English translation that offer vivid details of prominent physical landmarks and/or...