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The Power of Bible Translation

The Bible generates a range of complex and often ambiguous attitudes. For some the Bible is perceived as an oppressive tool that has historically been used to alienate and dehumanize. It has been viewed as an instrument of empire, of colonial and cultural domination, of conquest and subjugation. At various times and places, the Bible has been used as a basis for the discrimination and oppression of women and minorities. The Bible is not neutral. Its entry into a culture sends mixed messages. Where some see loss, others see gain. Where some see dispossession, others see empowerment. Where some see conquest, others see freedom. Where some see cultural dispossession and alienation, others see a call and challenge to reclaim the divine image—and thus equality and dignity—in all humans. For many in the church, the Bible is viewed as a transformative and indispensable tool. It is the church’s guiding document, central to the formulation of her creeds, to the formation of her faith and practice, to the fostering and nurturing of just and loving communities.

Bible translators strive to provide access to this ancient text. Indeed, without translation the biblical writings and their rich treasures would be forever inaccessible. The vast majority of people read or hear a translated Bible, a domesticated Bible that by means of translators’ mediation has crossed boundaries of time and space, of language and culture.

Translation Theory and Practice

I became involved in the world of Bible translation in the early 1980s. This was the high noon of the era of the legendary Eugene Nida. He was the leading light in the Bible Society movement, and his ideas remain important and influential. Dr. Nida was a great inspiration to me during those early years of my career. From Nida I learned that translation is a cross-cultural, cross-temporal,  transformative event. The task of translation calls for the utmost sensitivity and care in the process of mediating between worlds. Translation is not simply rendering individual words, sentences, or even narratives. It involves penetrating the underlying culture, feeling its rhythms and emotions as well as its values. It involves operating in the worlds of the source text and of the target text, being thoroughly at home in both, crisscrossing comfortably between them. It involves interpretive choices influenced by one’s values, belief systems, ideological orientation, and vocation.

The translator cannot be cut off from his or her product. The translation has much to do with the complexities of the source text world, of the target text world, and also of the world of the translator. The translator’s invisibility makes us blind to the fact that translators are not free of values, ideologies, or agendas. Translators are implicated in all kinds of biases and preferences. We do well to remember that:

translators are constrained in many ways: by their own ideology; by their feelings of superiority or inferiority towards the language in which they are writing . . . by the prevailing poetical rules at that time; by the very language in which the text they are translating is written, by what the dominant institutions and ideology expect of them, by the public for whom the translation is intended.1

For example, Gen 11:1 in the New English Bible, “Once upon a time all the world spoke a single language,” reflects the presuppositions of the translators. This reading was later, presumably under pressure from some quarters, changed in the Revised English Bible to, “There was a time when all the world spoke a single language.” Similarly, consider a reading such as Isa 7:14, where the Contemporary English Version presently has, “A virgin is pregnant,” but previously had “young woman.” Some contemporary Bible versions, such as NLT, NIV, NRSV, and ESV, transparently make known the translation team and translation philosophy. But the translators behind most Bibles remain anonymous, invisible. The invisibility of the translator has caught the attention of the American translation scholar Lawrence Venuti. Venuti is to be commended for highlighting what he refers to as the “translator’s shadowy existence.”

Translations based on Nida’s approach were called “common language translations” in the sense that they sought to communicate to all speakers of the target language. They focused on being intelligible and clear, yet accurate. The concept of translation was defined in this framework as “reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style.”2 Dubbed the dynamic equivalence theory of translation and, in some quarters, the meaning based3 or sense-by-sense approach to translation—in contrast to the word-for-word or correspondence approach—this theory held that an unadulterated, objective communication of the meaning of the source text was possible. William Frawley explains this illusion in terms of a conduit metaphor. He argues that “it reifies meaning and gives it some kind of privileged, free-floating status.”4 This, however, is not possible since all meaning is processed and subjected to interpretation influenced by the reader’s or listener’s perspective and presuppositions, prejudices and biases. There is no access to the pure thought of the original author; this is always accessed through multiple lenses, driven by multiple interests. Venuti had this in mind when he wrote:

a foreign text is the site of many different semantic possibilities that are fixed only provisionally in any one translation, on the basis of varying cultural assumptions and interpretive choices, in specific social situations, in different historical periods. Meaning is a plural and contingent relation, not an unchanging unified essence, and therefore a translation cannot be judged according to mathematics-based concepts of semantic equivalence or one-to-one correspondence. . . .5

Creation and re-creation of meaning are always embedded in particular contexts, paradigms, cultures, languages, presuppositions, belief systems, etc.

Bible translation and interpretation confront the challenge of what Christian Smith refers to as “the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism,”6 despite the paradoxical claims of biblicism. Belief in the authority and reliability of Scripture does not require biblicism. Biblicism defends a certain understanding of the Scriptures that is inconsistent with the reality of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” and the plethora of divergent interpretations from the same text. The crucial question here is this: Do our claims of inerrancy and infallibility apply to particular interpretations of the text, or to the text itself prior to being read and interpreted? The challenge, as Smith has argued, is that the process of being read and interpreted “gives rise to a host of many divergent teachings on important matters. . . .”7 Clearly, the biblical text is not spared the challenge of having a multivalent character.8 Our firm belief in the authoritative, reliable, and indispensable nature of the Bible does not immunize us from the risks of the interpretive process. Every reading or interpretation is mediated through selection from a large number of possible readings and is a function of the complexities and different outcomes of the interpretive process. No wonder interpretive pluralism pervades every area of Christian teaching.

In light of the above, a claim to inerrancy and/or infallibility with respect to particular interpretations is unwarranted. While confessing and affirming the Bible to be “the only source and norm of all Christian knowledge,”9 we do well to acknowledge that the process by which we derive true knowledge from this foundational source is complex. Brian Malley and John Bartkowski both make the important observation that “competing textual interpretations can be traced to the distinctive presuppositions readers bring to the texts. Specifically, contrasting interpretations . . . seem closely related to their particular ‘prejudices’ (in this case, assumptions about the essential nature of men and women), which evangelical readers import in the interpretive process.”10

The Problem of Gender in the Bible

The problem of translating the name and titles of God captures in a vivid manner the problem of gender in the Bible. The first verse of Genesis confronts the translator with the challenge of how to translate the word “God,” posing the difficult choice regarding the question of God’s nature and gender. The default position for most translators of the Bible is that God is necessarily masculine and, moreover, male, and should therefore be referred to using male pronouns (a choice required in languages that have grammatical gender, including English and African Cushitic languages such as Iraqw, spoken in Tanzania).11 In the case of languages that do not have grammatical gender, such as the Bantu languages of sub-Saharan African, the default position is to place God in the semantic class reserved for humans.12 In such languages, finding exact equivalents to represent gendered pronouns is an impossible task. The solution has been to find what Nida popularized as the “closest natural equivalent,” hence a dynamic equivalence translation and not a formal correspondence translation. Even though the Bible is replete with feminine metaphors for the biblical God, masculine metaphors are given prominence. God is spirit, yet the impression is given by some translators and interpreters that God is to be understood as masculine or in the image of a male human being. This, in effect, is a kind of idolatry since God is not a human being.

Our language for talking about God is figurative, symbolic, and even anthropomorphic.13 Sallie McFague has made a compelling case for the centrality of metaphor in human language, including our talk about God. God talk, like all human language, is thoroughly immersed in metaphor—images, illustrations, substitutes, analogies, etc. Such tropes are often believed to provide a true understanding of reality. Unfortunately, reality as it is in itself (to employ a Kantian phrase) is humanly unknowable. Elevating expressions of God’s gender to an ontological status is merely a reflection of our limited perspective, trapped in time and place. Such expressions should not be confused with absolute truth or the objective reality they seek to comprehend. Elizabeth Johnson’s preoccupation with the question of “speaking rightly of God” cannot be ignored. She argues that it is:

a question of unsurpassed importance, for speech to and about the mystery that surrounds human lives and the universe itself is a key activity of a community of faith. . . . Hence the way in which a faith community shapes language about God implicitly represents what it takes to be the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty. Such speaking, in turn, powerfully molds the corporate identity of the community and directs its praxis. . . . What is the right way to speak about God, in the face of women’s newly cherished human dignity and equality?14

The prevailing biblical perspective is sometimes described as androcentric or sexist. It unconsciously promotes the idea that males have primacy in the social order. Johnson notes that “inherited Christian speech about God has developed within a framework that does not prize the unique and equal humanity of women, and bears the marks of this partiality and dominance.”15

Translating “God” across Cultures

As an illustration of the complexity of these issues, let me recall briefly an example from the Iraqw Bible translation project. The speakers of the Iraqw language live not far from the famous snowcapped Mt. Kilimanjaro. The problem of translating the name and titles of the biblical God in any language confronts the Bible translator at the outset. Do we take the path of domestication, using the name or one of the names of God from the local language? Or do we opt for foreignization, borrowing the name or one of the names of God from the lingua franca or from neighboring dominant languages? In either case, these names are Christianized as interpreted by the theologians or custodians of the faith. In the case of translating the name of God in the Iraqw language, we were confronted with their belief in a female god, Mother Looa. This is the goddess that the Iraqw people have known across time, who appears in their folktales and myths, in their daily conversations, and in their prayers. They have for ages understood the creator of the universe to be Mother Looa. She is the provider and sustainer, the protector and loving mother of all humanity. She is the one whom everyone calls when they are in trouble. She represents all that is good, beautiful, and true. Evil and calamity, suffering and chaos are attributed to Neetlanqw, the male principle. The Iraqw language refers to Mother Looa using a female pronoun and to Neetlanqw using a masculine pronoun. Everyone on the translation team naturally settled for Mother Looa. Consultation with dozens of Iraqw pastors at the time confirmed that, in everyday conversation in the mother tongue, everyone uses the term Looa. The consensus was to continue using this term in the Bible. Thus Gen 1:1 read, “In the beginning Mother Looa created the heavens and the earth.” These editions were widely used, and for some time we all thought everything was fine, until the storm broke loose. It dawned on some of the Christian leaders that something was not right. They argued that in the Bible, as everyone knows, God is a father and therefore masculine. As a result, the masculine God was imposed on the Iraqw translation. The translators, who happened to be mostly female, were blamed for the decision to use the local name Looa in the translation, even though this was the consensus. The resulting change borrowed the name of God as used in Mungu, a language more widely used than Iraqw. The problem was that this shift reflects an ontological, rather than grammatical, understanding of terminology for God.

Shifting to the Bantu languages, masculine and feminine pronouns are absent and are represented by the nominal class used to refer to persons, without reference to gender. All translations in Bantu languages follow this practice (as far as I have been able to ascertain). Thus the battle for masculine and feminine pronouns that is raging in some circles in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere, is absent from sub-Saharan Africa. When the word “man” is used in a generic sense, the Bantu word meaning “person” is used. As an important example, “son of man” is not translated literally as “male child of male human being,” but in almost all cases as Mwana wa Mtu (Kiswahili for “Child of Human Being” or “Child of Humanity”) or its variants in other Bantu languages, and in a few cases as “son of humanity.” This seems to be the case also in the Nilotic languages, such as Dholuo of Kenya and Dhopadhola of Uganda, which both use “Son of Human Being/Humanity” instead of “Son of Man.” In the case of the frequent “my son” in Proverbs, most Bantu languages, and a number of Nilotic languages as well, opt for “my child” rather than “my male child” on grounds of naturalness in spoken speech.

In general, then, in the Bantu and most Nilotic languages, terms and expressions such as father, son, man, brother, men of Israel, likeness of men, and brotherly love are generally given a gender inclusive rendering that is natural in the target language.

God in Traditional African Perspective

The traditional African perspective, as hinted at above, offers a wide diversity of pictures of God. Johnson draws attention to the Kenyan theologian John Mbiti, who has compiled a list of African names for God. Outside the generic use of the term “God,” with either a male or female referent, the most frequently used term for the divine is “Creator.” Even a partial sampling reveals the diverse ways in which that theme is played out:

God is called the Great Mother, Supreme One, Fashioner, Designer, Father, Distributor, Carver, Molder, Hewer, Excavator, Architect of the World. . . . In addition, the ultimate mystery is Alone the Great One, the Powerful One, Wise One, Shining One, the One who sees all, the One who is everywhere, He or She is Friend, the Greatest of Friends, the One you confide your troubles to, the One who can turn everything upside down, the One there from ancient times, the One who began the forest, the One who gives all, the Rain-giver. . . Highest of the Highest . . . Queen of Heaven whose glory shines in the mist and rainbow, the Great Spider, the Great Spirit, the Great One of the Sky, Protector of the Poor, Guardian of Orphans, the Chief, the Fire, the Almighty, Watcher of everything, Owner of everything, Savior of all . . . the One who loves, who gives birth to the people, who rules, who makes children, who embraces all, the One who does not die, who has not let us down yet, who bears the world, who has seen many moons, who thunders from far-off times, who carries everyone on her back, who is heard in all the world, the One who blesses.16

From this long list, we can see that in sub-Saharan Africa God is not primarily viewed in terms of gender, but in terms of what he or she does. In certain contexts God is mother, yet in others God is father, in still others he/she is Power or Force, etc. Unfortunately, in the process of translating the Bible in African languages and cultures, God is in almost all cases transformed into a male patriarchal figure; that is, God and all discourse about God have been patriarchalized!

The Invisibility of Women in Biblical Texts

One need not go far in a critical and reflective reading of Genesis to start feeling that the female and feminine have been short changed. The general assumption holds the Creator to be male. Hence the ensuing narrative is written and interpreted from a patriarchal perspective. The patriarchal lens pervades and dominates both the Old and New Testaments. In the Gospels, for example, a quick look at the stories of the feeding of the 5000 or 4000 confronts the reader with the reality of the invisibility of women—present but not counted.

Phyllis Trible, in her landmark article, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” demonstrates the patriarchal nature of Scripture, arguing that “considerable evidence indicts the Bible as a document of male supremacy.”17 She concludes, however, that, “In rejecting Scripture women ironically accept male chauvinistic interpretations and thereby capitulate to the very view they are protesting. The hermeneutical challenge is to translate the biblical faith without sexism.”18 Trible chooses to highlight those aspects of Yahweh that show God’s feminine side. She affirms the view that, “Feminine imagery for God is more prevalent in the Old Testament than we usually acknowledge.”19 Trible continues:

Midwife, seamstress, housekeeper, nurse, and mother: all these feminine images characterize Yahweh, the God of Israel. . . . At the same time, Israel repudiated the idea of the sexuality in God. Unlike the fertility gods . . . Yahweh is neither male nor female, neither he nor she. . . . Cultural and grammatical limitations (the use of masculine pronouns for God) need not limit theological understanding. As Creator and Lord, Yahweh embraces and transcends both sexes.20

Invisibility and silence go together. Women in everyday situations and texts, including biblical texts, are disturbingly invisible and silent. Their voices are deliberately or unwittingly suppressed and silenced, marginalized and decentered. Strangely, we are often not aware that this is happening. Should we continue to be complicit in perpetuating this injustice, this scandal? Even though this silencing may have been the case, and may even be the case in a majority of situations now, that does not make it right. What is does not constitute what ought to be.

Patriarchy: The Elephant in the Room

Gender inequality is legitimated and only makes sense in the context of patriarchy. This is our elephant in the room. Allan G. Johnson has succinctly captured the defining elements of patriarchy in terms of “its male-dominated, male-identified, male-centered, and control-obsessed character.”21 He argues that it is complex and systemic, has deep roots, and is not easy to change. He writes:

It is like a tree rooted in core principles of control, male dominance, male identification and male centeredness. Its trunk is the major institutional patterns of social life as shaped by the roots—family, economy, politics, religion, education, music and the arts. The branches—first the larger, then the progressively smaller—are the actual communities, organizations, groups, and other systems in which we live our lives, from cities and towns to corporations, parishes, marriages, and families. And in all of this, individuals are the leaves who both make possible the life of the tree and draw their form and life from it. . . . As a system, patriarchy encourages men to accept male privilege and perpetuate women’s oppression, if only through silence. And it encourages women to accept and adapt to their oppressed position even to the extent of undermining movements to bring about change. We can’t avoid participating in patriarchy. . . . But we can choose how to participate in it.22

The social world of the Bible is undeniably patriarchal in the above sense, as are most cultures around the world. A faithful and regular reader of the Bible can hardly fail to see and gainsay this reality within the biblical texts and biblical worlds themselves. African cultures are no different from the biblical reality; patriarchy is pervasive and rears its head wherever one looks.

Patriarchy in Africa

Julie Chinwe Ababa speaks for most parts of sub-Saharan Africa in her claim that in Nigeria “women are deprived of basic rights, using culture and tradition to justify the abuse.”23 In a recent book, African Women: Early History to the 21st Century, Kathleen Sheldon has provided a general overview of this reality, covering several decades that place the question of the African woman in historical perspective.24 While culture and tradition in Africa are veritable culprits in the subjugation and oppression of women, these works have received enormous support from both Christian and Islamic religious texts. These texts have emerged as the leading and most authoritative sources for the legitimization and justification of patriarchy and associated oppressive practices.25 In the African context, these practices are responsible for the underdevelopment of women. Women are excluded in almost every social-cultural and economic domain. Women are denied access to the ancestral land rights of their fathers or husbands. African marriage rights and values clearly favor males. Similarly, the bargaining power of women in their marital homes favors males. Sons are preferred to daughters, and mothers are often victimized for giving birth to female children. Education is gendered and has always favored the boy child. Moreover, obstacles to capital access are pitted against females.26 An African woman, Tsitsi Dangarembga, has remarked that, “This business of womanhood is a heavy burden. . . . And these days it is worse, with the poverty of blackness on one side and the weight of womanhood on the other.”27

Timothy Njoya observes, on the basis of his research, the following widely held beliefs and perceptions:

Men should have precedence in opportunities in life.

Men have the right to eat and mate more than women.

Culture holds women accountable to men while the reverse does not obtain.

Men assume the rights to assign all chores and activities to women.

Men feel justified to assume unattainable and unsustainable marks of masculinity as providers, property owners, and protectors, even when it is women who actually execute all three roles.28

Some interpreters justify these African practices against women in the name of the Bible.29 There is, however, a fervent hope for the emergence of a post-patriarchal age, “one in which women and men find possibilities for the fullness of life, not through rule over one another, but rather through freedom and mutuality. . . .”30 These values, based on a Christocentric perspective that empowers, frees, and humanizes all of God’s people, ought to be the goal and norm in our translating and reading of the Bible.

Opportunities

Though the translator is deeply committed to the text and to rendering it as faithfully and as accurately as possible, she or he is caught up in the web of the above-mentioned challenge of pervasive interpretive pluralism. There is no running away from the choices that must be made. On what do these choices turn? This is where our Christocentric hermeneutical key comes in. For us, this is what in the final analysis will influence the outcome of the translation and the tenor of the target.

The translator has here the opportunity to use his or her privileged status to challenge distorted  notions regarding gender equality or inequality and the relationship between men and women as God created them. She or he has the opportunity to celebrate the equal dignity of the sexes, their mutuality to employ their gifts and competencies in serving God and humanity, their equal participation in sharing the glory of God in creation, in our communities, in our homes, in our churches, in education, in political and economic life, lived out in a community of justice and freedom.

The translator is well positioned to influence the readings that the vast majority of Bible readers will end up believing to be the word of God. Hence the need to understand the complex role played by Bible translation in the interpretation and dissemination of the good news of our salvation and liberation. Bible translation is too important to be left to translators alone. Hope lies in actively engaging the translators and together shaping the outcome of our translations and the proper understanding of God’s word for us.

Notes

The author has published on this topic in the journal Verbum et Ecclesia. See “Bible Translation and Gender, Challenges and Opportunities—with Specific Reference to sub-Saharan Africa,” vol. 39, no. 1 (2018), available at https://verbumetecclesia.org.za/index.php/ve/article/view/1820/3488.

1. Roman Alvarez and M. Carmen-Africa Vidal, “Translating: A Political Act” in Translation Power Subversion, Alvarez and Vidal (Cleveson: Multilingual Matters, 1996), 1–9.

2. Eugene Nida and Charles Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation (Leiden: Brill, 1969), 12.

3. An example is Mildred Larson, Meaning Based Translation: A Guide to Cross-Language Equivalence (Lanham: University Press of America, 1984, 1989). See also Timothy Wilt, Bible Translation: Frames of Reference (Manchester: St Jerome, 2003); Jeremy Munday, Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications (London: Routledge, 2001); Edwin Gentzler, Contemporary Translation Theories (New York: Routledge, 1993); Jean Delisle, Translation: An Interpretive Approach (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988).

4. William Frawley, Text and Epistemology (Norwood: Ablex, 1987), 136.

5. Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility, 17–18.

6. Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012), 16–54.

7. Smith, Bible Made Impossible, xi.

8. Smith, Bible Made Impossible, 50. See further, Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, ed., The Hermeneutics Reader (New York: Continuum, 1989); Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Exeter: Paternoster, 1980); Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: IVP Academic), 2006.

9. R. C. Sproul, “Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism,” in Foundations of Biblical Authority, 103.

10. Smith, Bible Made Impossible, 76; See also Brian Malley, How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism (Lanham: AltaMira, 2004).

11. The Iraqw language uses grammatical gender. Iraqw belongs to the Cushitic language family, which is part of the broader Afro-Asiatic language family, of which the Semitic language family is a prominent member. See Christopher Ehret, The Historical Reconstruction of Southern Cushitic Phonology and Vocabulary (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer, 1980); Frøydis Nordbustad, Iraqw Grammar: An Analytical Study of the Iraqw Language (Berlin, Dietrich Reimer, 1988).

12. Derek Nurse and Gerard Philippson, eds., The Bantu Languages (London: Routledge, 2003).

13. Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1982).

14. Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 3–6.

15. Johnson, She Who Is, 15.

16. Johnson, She Who Is, 119–20, taken from John S. Mbiti, Concepts of God in Africa (London: SPCK, 1970), 327–36. See also Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Oxford: Heinemann, 1969); Robert E. Hood, Must God Remain Greek: Afro Cultures and God-Talk (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).

17. Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” JAAR 41, no. 1 (1973): 30.

18. Trible, “Depatriarchalizing,” 31.

19. Trible, “Depatriarchalizing,” 32.

20. Trible, “Depatriarchalizing,” 34.

21. Allan G. Johnson, The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005).

22. Johnson, Gender Knot, 18–19.

23. Julie Chinwe Ababa, “Inequality and Discrimination in Nigeria, Tradition and Religion as Negative Factors Affecting Gender,” a paper presented at the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (Oct 2012).

24. Kathleen Sheldon, African Women: Early History to the 21st Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017).

25. See, for example, Charles Clark Kroeger and James R. Beck, eds., Women, Abuse and the Bible: How Scripture can be Used to Hurt or Heal (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), where the contributing authors provide abundant evidence of the use of the Bible to justify the oppression, exclusion, and suffering of women.

26. See Michael Kevane, Women and Development in Africa (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2014).

27. Quoted in Kevane, Women and Development, 1.

28. Timothy Njoya, Overcoming Delusive Masculinity: Men for the Equality of Men and Women (Nairobi: MEW, 2012), 7–8.

29. See the numerous examples in Kroeger and Beck, eds., Women, Abuse and the Bible.

30. Paula Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel, eds., After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), xii.

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