SOMETHING LOST IN TRANSLATION


We are in the thronging, discordant food hall
at Euston Station, London, sipping
a latte and an americano from Caffé Ritazza,
taking the first bite of our Upper Crust bagettes –
mozzarella & tomato, pastrami & emmental –
while looking out for the disabled pigeon
that hops, scavenging, under the tables,
when we are approached, politely, gently,
by a bearded man with a shabby shoulder bag
from which he presents us with
an asymmetrically trimmed piece of paper
comprising a printed list, which appears
as if processed on an Amstrad PC:
‘I am a deaf mute.
I have no work.
I have a family to support.
Please help me, for the love of God.’
He also leaves a professionally produced
Romanian (we think) prayer card.
We notice he has disseminated the sheets
and the cards to all the tables
in our vicinity. He returns for the harvest.
Some give, most do not. We contribute more or less
the tithe of our meal. He takes his printed sheet,
leaves us the card, nodding his unsmiling thanks.
He moves on. The cacophony returns.

On the Virgin train to Crewe, we log-on.
‘Maica Domnului’, the prayer begins
– Romanian, ‘Mother of God’. (The giver
may be Roma, we think – informed judgement
or prejudice). It is, we deduce,
St Augustine’s intercessory prayer.
On the front of the card an icon
of the Virgin and Child is reproduced.
Mother and son are appropriately doleful.
She points to him, as if saying, ‘He is the one’.
Perhaps we have been conned. Maybe
our meek beggar has an apartment at Canary Wharf,
with those other cartoon characters,
The Masters of the Universe, and our modest gamble
will not have paid off. In English, as in Romanian,
‘charity’ and ‘justice’ are Latinate words. The British,
like the Roman Empire, kept the concepts distinct.
Interestingly, in Hebrew, one word encompasses both.

 

 

 

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  1. #1 by John Huddart - November 3rd, 2014 at 00:27

    I like the way you grow this poem out of the image of the foodhall with its mixture of chaos and plenty and quite precise listing of the foodstuffs with their Waitrosey affluence. Then that disabled pigeon which appropriately sets the scene for the appearance of the beggar.

    He confronts us with the central dilemma that the appalling UKIP seeks to simplify – the poor immigrant’s burden on society and its conscience, and the turning away of the poor that Christianity is supposed to oppose. So having dispensed alms (what better reminder of a duty to the poor than ‘tithe’) you quite properly debate the language issues that underpin our cultural suppositions about helping others. The journey on the train is just a journey on a train, but it’s interesting for its choice of detail. The logging on to the internet for an answer to the problem, only to discover there is no ready answer from knowledge bases as to why we have conflicted attitudes to the poor – which are strongly hinted at in your references to Roma and to the urban myth of the beggars who live in luxury.

    All in all an apparently simple narrative which raises many important questions.

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