I translated Bai Juyi’s ‘Chang Hen Ge’ without using the letter E

Liao-dynasty wall painting of Yang Gui-fei

Bai Juyi is the best, most evocative Tang poet, methinks, and his Chang Hen Ge (Long Song of Regret) is one of the most beautiful and entertaining ‘really old’ things I’ve read in any language. It boasts rainbow fairies, aging eunuchs, Oz-esque trips to an amazingly bureaucratic fairyland, the fantastic innuendo of the hibiscus tent (芙蓉帐), and ghostly concubine Yang Gui-fei hanging around her ornate castle in a flower crown rather like Lana Del Rey in the Born to Die video. Obviously I had no choice but to translate it but with one twist: I was not allowed to use the most common letter of the English language. How did I do? Questionably.

Han dynasty monarch thinks only of waifs, roams without any luck. A girl first blossoms on Yang ground, still unknown, boudoir-bound.

Inborn charms too hard to avoid, sought for Han king’s flank. Lady blinking happily, myriad charmings; six floors now all shut out. A frosty spring bath at Huaqing Pool grants skin so shining. In Tsar’s favour, what good luck now! Why would any palatial girl try?

Cloudy hair and jangly sounds, a warm all-night hibiscus pavilion, which is cut short by morning. Why go into work at that? A lazy non-stop party, from spring to spring and from night to night. Trinity-thousand in his halls, and all for that singular man. Gold Room living, grooming maids, adding to his drunk spring chord.

For this do girls and boys split up our country – only that Yang family can do without any pain.

If only all mums and dads could birth girls! I do pity this – poor souls!

Rupturing clouds of aqua, our hilly Li Mansion – and fairy music floats through by wind.

Soft song, slow gyration, murmuring strings, and that Han monarch still missing in action.

From Yuyang do drum vibrations call: a fairy bursts in with rainbow shirt! All six-plus ways for Chang’an pass, watchposts burnt to dust. Myriad mounts now run out downward. Grassy flags float on and off – it’s still many li to our final goal.

Nothing to do, glorious Sixth Army: our glamorous girl now slaught by stallion-hoof.

And nobody to catch on impact that royal-hair-circling, ground-bound tiara. 

But a good knight cannot stop that soily flashback sight, that blood-sad concoction.

Slowly do pallid dusts and slow winds murmur through that famous road, winding up to Jian Pavilion.  Sparingly do civilians walk, small down from that high mount. Flags flash without light in its paling sun.

Cobalt swirls his Sichuan brook: Sichuan mountains stay but all cyan. Sky-aboving lords say sorry day and night.

His roving, monarchical soul is in anguish! Night-rains and jingling cut off his shouts.

Day-swirling, ground-turning, back gallops that chariot, unwilling to go forth from that point.

In muddy soil sits a hill without spark or vivacity. In situ: last living ruin.

Monarchs, wading through filth, swap looks; will that marathon mount gallop back from its halls?

On its arrival sit pools and parks, hinging. O, spurting pond! O, hibiscus plot and willows!

Hibiscus, you call Yang to mind – and willow, too, such as that girl’s charm: how couldn’t anybody mourn that? In spring’s wind blooms a night-blooming plum, and autumn’s rain brings its dynamic wings down to foot.

At a mansion by far, a yard by us, do ruby-crinkling clouds fill up our stairways, unraking.

Fragrant dancing girls, hair-frosting! In that spicy room: Castrato! Child! But now all wrinkly. Glow-worms fly softly at twilight; a solitary lamp, almost without oil, cannot lull our cast to Z.

Lazily rings out that chiming iron; it’s a long night. Tiny, our star-brook floats by, waiting for morning to burst.

Twin roof rocks lay icy, looking down to a solid mass of crystal blossoms. Now who wants to stay with him in that warm rococo bunk?

“Stay happy unto passing, and do not count your days, and Yang’s soul won’t pass into your nightly thoughts.”

A Daoist pilgrim, arriving to Chang’an, could swap his kingly truth for Yang’s young spirit.

To stop our dandy’s tumbling thoughts, look for that wizard with all your might!

Column-stallions rush as air, and sky-mounting, ground-digging, hunt for him.

Gift-shop sky is up, pallid katabasis is down; two worlds ambiguous, mutually unknown.

Who knows of plains of magic mountains, far, by boat? Stuck in a lacy-light, always-vanishing world? Of luminous forts, of tutti-frutti clouds, with fairy folk walking amongst, dainty-thin.

Within is a mortal – T . Z.  Skin just as snow, conduct blooming – you know, don’t you?

Knock on that door (Gold Building, W Wing), and ask Xiaoyu to pass it on.

From Han-tsar’s word did a spirit, half-faint, jump in its pavilion. Pacing, pillow-punching, shirt-twitching, finally from that labyrinth, its gold-paint and moondust, did Yang burst out.

Half-conscious, hair in clouds, crown of buds cracking apart: Yang finally walks downstairs.

Fairy-gowns blow away; rainbow skirts frolic, as if ballroom-bound. Salt-trails map Yang’s traumatic look: a rain-sunk sugar blossom. ‘Thank you, King’, says his maid, thoughts flooding, and as a unit two start to murmur.

Zhaoyang Plaza stops that charm; in Immortal Hall wait long days and nights. At final look, invisibility guards away that dust-cloudy Chang’an, that mortal coil. Only his high honours stay with him, gold hairpins trust for a Dao bishop.

Still at hand: pins, tin, gold all crack to shards. But tough as gold is that taught mind, dividing mutually for all sky-bound.

Yang’s words at parting – hold it in! – in Yang’s words a two-mind contract.

It’s a Sunday in July at Immortal Hall, and nobody’s soft words wisp out at midnight.

May at sky fly two birds, singly-flapping, and may from our ground grow two trunks twining.   

Thus shall our world’s clouds last, soil lay still, until all hours vanish away. Thus is this sorrow, always braiding forth, snaking forward, without conclusion.

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