From Blasphemies to Blessings in Disguise (Part 1 of 2)
Some translators regard research as an extra burden, a distraction, a necessary evil that has to be done. Others shun it altogether, as I have described in an earlier post. For me however, research is a welcome diversion that breaks the monotony of translating. Research can even open windows of opportunity for unexpected discoveries and revelations. In fact, that is a bonus of being a translator. The other day I had to translate the word "blasphemy" — a word which has been overused and abused lately — for a case study. Since I suspect that I have the propensity to confuse blasphemy with apostasy or heresy, I had to verify its semantic meaning to ensure an accurate translation. That said, there seems to be a grey area where the spectra of meanings of blasphemy, apostasy and heresy (even sacrilege) do overlap. In any case, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, blasphemy is "(1) the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God, or (2) the act of claiming the attributes of deity, or (3) irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable."
It was during the research process, that I stumbled upon a quote by Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). “Every great idea,” Russell once said, “starts out as a blasphemy.” Initially, his words sound, well, blasphemous. However, upon further contemplation, if we impartially track human civilization throughout the ages, his words ring true. Historically, Siddharta Gautama (Buddha) started as a minority of one against the tyranny of the Hindu caste system. Likewise, Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten — who is often credited as the inventor of monotheism — was against the tyranny of polytheism. Jesus of Nazareth was against the tyranny of the Sanhedrin (that's why his crucifixion). Muhammad was against the tyranny of Meccan tribes who worshiped pagan idols (that's why his forced hijra or migration from Mecca to Medina in 622). Martin Luther was against the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church (that's why his excommunication). Let a holier-than-thou believer in any religion not based on a blasphemy, cast the first stone.
Beyond religion, hyperbolically, blasphemies had been committed as well. Mozart was against the tyranny of the Italian composers in the courts of the Austrian princes. George Washington and Mahatma Gandhi were against the tyranny of British imperialism. Claude Monet was against the tyranny of the French conventional art community during Impressionism early days in the 1870s. Martin Luther King Jr. was against the tyranny of Jim Crow segregation laws. Nelson Mandela was against the tyranny of South African apartheid.
Then there was Gustave Eiffel. It is now impossible to imagine the City of Light without the Eiffel Tower, yet it was almost demolished in 1909. (The only thing that saved it was the realization of its potential usability as a radio tower to improve transatlantic communications.) During its construction, famous French writer Guy de Maupassant along with 46 Parisian literature giants expressed their anger in a letter of protest to the Minister of Public works in Paris at that time. They called the Tower a "dishonor", while Parisians — used to Haussmannian architectural style — called it an “elephant”, a “giraffe”, a “hulking metal beast crouched on all fours”. Guy de Maupassant hated it so much that he often ate lunch in the tower’s second floor restaurant, which was the only point in the city where he could not see “this tall skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant and disgraceful skeleton.” Nowadays, not only is the Eiffel an indispensable icon of Paris, but a universal symbol for travel. Case in point: TravelPro suitcases have an Eiffel logo.
Thus Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Washington, Gandhi, Mandela, even Mozart, Eiffel and Monet were all minorities, who at one point in their respective lives dared to commit a blasphemy, which is "irreverence toward something considered sacred or inviolable." Had they conformed to, and obeyed, the conventional wisdom of their times, then their names would be unrecognizable ones. Who is Buddha? Who is Monet? Conformity and obedience are not the hallmarks of great men. Instead, courage to go against the grain, ingenuity and leadership are. What were once blasphemies turn out to be blessings in disguise.
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter