The Thing Itself
They say some stories can only be told in their native languages, that no matter how skilled and sensitive the translator, some essential quality becomes inevitably lost in the transfer.
Most of us wouldn’t know. How many books have you read in two tongues? And how many languages are native to you?
Pidgin, as practiced by generations of Hawaii’s people, presents a unique case. Local in both the big-and-small-senses, Pidgin has never been spoken the same way by two different people, let alone districts, and to say nothing of Islands. If you rode the #1 bus around east Oahu in the late 1970s, for example, you knew the word “tarantaran”–with the r’s pronounced Japanese-style, like d’s–to mean someone stuck up. Only later would you discover that this word had at least two other pronunciations, each with completely different meanings. (And, Lee Cataluna devoted three columns to this very word back around the turn of the century. ) Some of us grew up with “boroboros” as our had-it slippers, for others they were our hamajang clothes. In the end, we all speak our own Pidgin, its forms and rhythms native to our social interactions and to our location in place and time.
For this and many other reasons, the representation of Pidgin in popular culture is always a pain in the ass. “It was like this, no no it was like that, this person’s take is inauthentic, that person’s is bullshit, this other person is playing the sacred for laughs,” etc etc. Which sucks, because the point of pidgin–or at least the reason it exists–was as a bridge. You’re over there, I’m over here, but if we make a bridge of words, now we’re both here, our separate spaces have become the same place.
Isn’t that sweet?
Maybe. But what happens when that bridge crumbles? It’s obvious that immigration has long since passed the point of critical mass–a point where not only the native culture, but also the Local culture that displaced it, have been swamped by more foreigners than the system can handle. As a result, Pidgin is smaller now. And if it’s not a vibrant, active, always-emerging form of cultural mixology, what is it?
If you speak Pidgin, the answer to this riddle is inside of you. And if you don’t have the words to express it, Lee Tonouchi does.
Yet this is not a book about Pidgin. Tonouchi’s written a searing, haunting, dense memoir of a relationship mediated by the mannerisms and idioms of Local culture in the 1970s and ‘80s. As of press time, there were no plans to translate Faddah and Son into English, but it’s a volume Pidgin speakers will not want to miss.
Lee A. Tonouchi Bess Press, 2011 128 pages