Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka `Aina I Ka Pono

"The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness" is the state motto of Hawai’i and allegedly the motto of the Great King, Kamehameha I. I have memorized the words of the original, but somehow the translation never seemed to make a lot of sense, neither as a sentence, nor as the motto of a king.

Now that I have been learning Hawiian a little, the translation makes even less sense, because I have the underpinning to understand a little more of the structure of the sentence. I’ll reveal my new tentative translation at the bottom, but give me a little time first to explain how I got there.

Ua is the Hawaiian particle that introduces action that started in the past. That can be action that is completed or that is still ongoing, but it must be started in the past. Ua hele au means "I walked", but can mean both "and stopped" or "and still do". I still don’t know how to distinguish the two, though, or whether Hawaiian does distinguish.

Mau is actually not really a verb, but an adjective and indicates temporal continuity. That could mean "eternal", "always", "constant", etc. Ua mau together indicate an action that started in the past (for sure) and will continue forever.

Ke ea where ke is the same as English "the", and ea means, oddly enough, both "life" and "independence". Oops… There is something funny – there is a term that is from the realm of politics, and another that is neutral. Which one would the Great King choose for his motto? Well, let us think for a second… I don’t get how they could even think the ea Kamehameha was thinking of is "life." I mean, we are talking about the guy that united the islands to stand against the British forces and American colonizers. Wouldn’t you think he had to be a little concerned at least about independence?

O ka `aina with the possessive particle o like English "of". `Aina is "land", as in the islands. People that live in Hawai`i frequently talk about the `aina as if it were a person. They will talk about the beauty of the `aina, or they will say that my `aina is filled with mana. Of course I have no idea  whether that’s because they think I am an idiot malihini that gobbles up every word of Hawaiian or because they are for real. But there you are, by "the land" Kamehameha meant a sacred entity. Why he wouldn’t use the word "Hawai`i" may be a bit of a mystery, though.

I ka pono with the directional particle i similar to English "by means of". Pono is a very interesting concept in Hawaiian and means much, much more than "righteousness". The latter is a term that Christian fundamentalists in this country have soured to many of us, so it sounds even stranger now than it must have sounded in the translation.

I have had a hard time finding anything online about pono. The first time I heard the word used was from a painter, a long-time haole kama`aina on Maui, who told me that my tired look came from lack of pono. Again, as in the case of `aina, the use of the term was automatic. I asked what that was, and the painter had a really hard time explaining it. He ended up saying, in essence it meant "harmony."

I read all I could about pono and its ritual uses, and it seems to be a strongly Taoistic concept of unity with purpose. That’s probably best represented in the traditional closing of a Hawaiian letter: me ka pono. Me here means "with", and the translation "with righteousness" makes absolutely no sense. Instead, it should mean something like "peace may be with you."

In a political context, pono indicates "legality". I ka pono in that context would mean something like "by obeying the law".

Put it all together, and we get a new translation for the motto of the state of Hawai`i:

Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka `Aina I Ka Pono
Under the Law, the Nation will be forever

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