Translation pitches (and a revelation)


Last night, English PEN hosted an experiment at the Free Word Centre in London. As part of European Literature Night, which in the seven years it has been going has grown from a single evening to a festival stretching over several weeks, The Translation Pitch saw eight translators pitching eight novels that have not yet been translated into English to a panel of industry experts. At stake was a £250 PEN samples grant, which would pay for a chunk of the winning text to be translated and shared in the hope of attracting an English-language publishing deal.

The competing books were varied. They included a Danish crossover novel about a school shooting (Jesper Wung-Sung’s Proper Fractions, pitched by Lindy Falk Van Rooyen), a 640-page-long work of German metafiction (Verena Rossbacher’s Small Talk and Slaughter, presented by Anne Posten) and a prize-winning collection of interlinked Hungarian short stories (Krisztina Tóth’s Pixel, championed by Owen Good).

After the pitch and an – often powerful – reading of an extract by an actor, the translator received feedback from the panel: writer and senior editor at Granta Max Porter, agent Kerry Glencourse, and translator and founder of publisher And Other Stories Stefan Tobler.

The panel’s comments were illuminating. As well as revealing the strengths and problems of each project, they also shed light on what publishers look for when they consider bringing works to the English-language market. Books with clear narrative lines and easy, one-sentence hooks seem to have a better chance of being published (although middle-of-the-road commercial fiction is likely to be passed over, as there are lots of home-grown writers doing that). In addition, books that can easily be compared to the work of well-known authors tend to have an advantage because, as Porter observed, ‘publishers are lazy creatures’.

At times, the feedback made for somewhat depressing listening. With the panel generally shying away from works that sounded structurally or linguistically complex – or that used settings outside the author’s home nation – it seemed as though the odds were stacked against more inventive, experimental works making it through the translation bottleneck into English. With editors reportedly ever more under pressure to take on ‘marketable’ books, you could have been forgiven for thinking that we are in danger of only getting access to works that reinforce our preconceptions about other places and people.

Thankfully, however, the winning book did not conform to all these prescriptions. Penned by a writer who has been billed as ‘the Bulgarian Balzac’, Vladimir Zarev’s Ruin sounds like a fabulous read. Now in its ninth edition since its publication in 2003, it has apparently been hailed by critics in countries such as Germany as the novel about life in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism.

Indeed, what swung it for the book – along with translator Angela Rodel’s obvious passion for the project – was probably her observation that German publishers were laughing at English-language publishers because they have failed to pick up Zarev. This, Rodel claimed, was an ‘outrage’ and she was eager to ‘unleash Ruin on the anglophone market’.

With commendations also going to the Rossbacher and Pierre Autin-Grenier’s That’s Just How It Is, whose would-be translator Andrea Reece made a similarly compelling pitch, it was clear that passion still wins the day. Let’s hope it long continues so.

For me, it was a particularly thought-provoking evening: shortly before the pitches began, an email had come through on my phone. It was from my editor Helen at Bloomsbury and attached was the final version of the cover design for my novel, Beside Myself (below – I hope you like it). For the first time, I had seen what it will look like when it’s published next year. It was a moment of great delight and pride.

Hearing about those eight fascinating novels that may never get an English-language deal put that experience into context. It made me feel once more how extraordinarily lucky I am to be writing in a language that gives me the chance to reach the sort of readership that English does – and how very much further we have to go before we can all truly read the world.

revision (1)

My week in New York


Last week was extraordinary. I was in New York for the publication of The World Between Two Covers, the US edition of my book inspired by my year-long journey through a book from every country. There’s no way I could do justice to everything that happened in a single blog post, but here’s a rundown of some of the highlights.

The week started off with a reading and presentation at WORD, a very cool independent bookshop in Brooklyn. The store was a fitting location as that day was Independent Bookstore Day in the US, so it was great to be taking part in one of the events to mark that.

You can see me standing outside WORD in the photo above. Although the picture doesn’t really show it, the weather was glorious. I was worried that that might make it hard to persuade people to spend part of the afternoon sitting inside looking at my PowerPoint slides, but lots of people turned up. The WORD staff even had to put out more chairs.


Monday May 4 was the official publication date (although the book was actually in many stores before that), so that day Steve and I went out for dinner with my lovely editor Elisabeth Kerr from Liveright/Norton and Sarah Levitt from ZPA, who is a partner agent with my UK agent, Caroline Hardman, and represented my book in the US.

It was great to spend more time with Elisabeth and meet Sarah in person as we have been in contact over email for many months. We got on very well and had lots to talk about – in fact Sarah and I met for coffee later in the week and spent a good hour and a half talking solidly about books.

As if treating me to dinner wasn’t enough, the next day Elisabeth arranged for me to meet and have lunch with a number of people from the Norton team. Again, it was an opportunity to put faces to the names of many people I have been in touch with remotely since Norton bought the book in August last year. I was also delighted to make the acquaintance of Bob Weil, publishing director of Liveright/Norton, who has worked on some incredible projects over his illustrious career.

That evening saw me speaking at Book Culture on W 112th Street in Manhattan. Once again, there was a lovely encounter – this time with Ana Cristina Morais, one of the volunteers who translated a book for me to read from São Tomé and Príncipe back in 2012. I was thrilled to meet Ana at last, as you can see from the photo below.

Ana Cristina

Wednesday brought a change of direction. I met with the team at Bloomsbury, including publishing director George Gibson, who will be publishing my novel Beside Myself  in the US next year, in tandem with Bloomsbury’s UK team. It felt strange to switch from talking about world literature to talking about fictional swapped identical twins, but everyone quickly made me feel at home. Afterwards, I had lunch with my Bloomsbury US editor, Lea Beresford, and the two of us got on like a house on fire – so much so that I’m afraid I made Lea late for her afternoon presentation as we were enjoying talking so much.

Thursday was my last full day in the city, but even that didn’t go by without some book business, this time in the shape of chats about ideas with some of the Norton team, including publicist Cordelia Calvert. Cordelia is already doing a great job because on Friday, just before I left New York, the hugely popular magazine Entertainment Weekly hit the newsstands, featuring The World Between Two Covers on its Must List. You can see the piece below in all its glory in the copy I picked up at Penn Station on my way to the airport – a fabulous end to the trip.


Thanks to Ana and Steve for the pictures.

US publication day


It’s official: The World Between Two Covers is published in the US. Huzzah!

To celebrate the occasion, Steve and I returned to Coney Island’s Steeplechase Pier in New York this morning to restage the photo at the top of this blog. That original snap was taken in January 2012, a few days after I’d embarked on my quest to read a book from every country in a year.


Today, the weather is rather nicer, the boardwalk has been refurbished and my hair is longer. Oh, and the books I’m reading have changed too…

IMG_9193Photos by Steve Lennon

Gearing up for the US launch

Excitement is building in my little south London flat. It’s now less than two weeks until the publication of The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe, the US edition of my book inspired by my year-long journey through a book from every country.

In nine days’ time, Steve and I will be getting on a plane bound for New York, ready for publication day on May 4. It’ll be the first time I’ve been back to the city since January 2012, when the photo at the top of this blog was taken on Steeplechase pier, Coney Island (I wish I could remember which book I was reading then).

While we’re in New York, I’ll be meeting many of the team at Liveright/Norton who’ve been working so hard to bring my writing to the US. I’ll also be doing a couple of events: one at WORD in Brooklyn on Saturday May 2 at 1.30pm (the store will be celebrating Independent Bookstore Day, so there’ll be lots of things going on) and one at Book Culture in Manhattan on Tuesday May 5 (time TBC).

If you’re in New York that week, it’d be lovely to see you there. In the meantime, you can find the US version of my author film, explaining some of the ideas behind the book, above. Not long to go now…

Film by vloop.

London Book Fair: a blogger’s-eye view


London Book Fair has a special place in my heart. Three years ago, when I was in the thick of my year of reading the world, I took a day off from work and ventured there clutching a long list of countries that I had yet to find books from.

I had no idea what to expect and I’m sure I must have seemed like a crank to many of those I spoke to that day (the people at the Sultanate of Oman’s stand certainly weren’t impressed). Nevertheless, bumbling from stall to stall on the trail of national literary associations, publishers and agencies who might be able to help, I did make some useful connections. These included a fascinating discussion with Justin Cox from the African Books Collective, who ended up pointing me in the direction of several of my reads for the project. I came away from that day tired but happy, and clutching an armful of books.

The great thing about the Book Fair, as I discovered that day, is that it is vast and diverse enough to have something to offer all comers (well, certainly all those who like books). If you want to spend the day finding out about threats to writers in authoritarian regimes, you can do that. Interested in the latest gizmos and reading accessories? Look no further. Passionate about Mexico? You’ve come to the right place (particularly as that’s the focus country for this year). Keen to find out how you can best self-publish and market your novel? Check.

As a result, everyone does come, from the most tentative of aspiring newbies to great literary stars, and from one-woman back-room publishing outfits to the biggest names in the game. You’ll see them all: agents, authors, bloggers, editors, publicists, readers, translators and even a few lost tourists milling around under the great arched roofs of Kensington Olympia, holding meetings, sealing deals, helping themselves to sweets from little bowls on the end of counters, trying to work out where they are on the floor plan (see below), and generally talking, reading and thinking about books.


This year, as I wasn’t on the trail of titles from particular nations, I decided to focus my attention on the packed programme of talks and events. So I spent yesterday flitting between small areas of seating with names like the English PEN Literary Salon, Author HQ and the Literary Translation Centre to catch as many things as I could.

I covered a lot of ground. I watched interviews with leading Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska (who told me afterwards as she was signing my copy of her novel Leonora that she had been very nervous about speaking in English – it didn’t show) and bestselling British debut novelist Emma Healey. And I listened to a fascinating talk on whether television drama is the new literature – apparently not, I was relieved to hear, although the more fluid way that people consume stories these days (from short-form snippets to binges on box sets) has opened up the possibility for metanarratives that dwarf even the chunkiest Victorian novels. In extreme cases, these pose the risk that writers committing years of their lives to creating the screenplays for certain shows might burn out, a scenario that sounds almost Kafkaesque.

I also caught a discussion on crime and thriller novels. According to critic Jake Kerridge ‘discussability’ is key to many such books’ success. And, by the way, if you have a crime novel or thriller on your computer that you think should be published, Harper Collins’ Killer Reads imprint is accepting unsolicited manuscripts until this Friday.


However, as I’ve found in previous years, the most interesting Book Fair events had to do with translation and the way books travel across borders (or don’t). I was intrigued by a discussion about ‘What Not To Translate’. The participants seemed to agree that while translators should not censor or control which works travel according to their personal political views, time pressures inevitably mean that they are more likely to accept commissions for books with which they feel a degree of sympathy.

A talk on the role of literary agents in connecting continents was similarly fascinating, particularly as agents are still a relatively new concept outside the English-speaking world.

The final event of the day was among my favourites. Bringing together translators Daniel Hahn, Deborah Smith and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, and Syrian author and illustrator Nadine Kaadan, it picked out the titles they had worked on for Reading the Way, a project by Outside In World to find, translate and try out children’s books from around the world with UK audiences.

I was particularly taken with the sound of El cuento fantasma, a Costa Rican story that Hahn translated about a book in a library that is afraid of being read. They also passed round a French/Arabic version of Elle et les autres by Nahla Ghandour, which, as you can see from the picture of the title page below, is read from right to left – an added challenge when you’re translating illustrated books from languages like Arabic and Hebrew into English because it means the illustrations may have to be altered too.


But perhaps the best thing about the day was the number of friends and acquaintances I bumped into. From fellow writers and bloggers to people I’ve met through events and those who helped me read my way around the world, it seemed I could barely turn a corner without seeing someone I knew.

It was a far cry from the experience of three years ago, when I wandered nervously around the stands, plucking up the courage to introduce myself. As I stood on the gallery of the main hall, looking down at the Bloomsbury stand and imagining what it will be like to see my novel Beside Myself  there next year, it struck me once more how far this journey has taken me.


London Book Fair runs until Thursday April 16. With thanks to Literature Across Frontiers for giving me a ticket.

Book of the month: Bina Shah


It’s been a month of great reading. Funnily enough, through no deliberate intention, many of my favourite reads of the past few weeks have been novels about women in different parts of the planet. From Chantel Acevedo’s scintillating evocation of Cuba’s past in The Distant Marvels to Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman – an engrossing exploration of the consequences of a lifetime’s bibliophilia in contemporary Beirut – I have found myself wowed by stories revealing the world through women’s eyes. I also took a detour into 20th-century writing to spend a few hours pinioned to my sofa by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House – a chilling masterclass in how to construct a gripping plot.

Those in the UK keen to get their hands on a good read might find it easier to choose one of the titles mentioned above as, although March’s book of the month is published in the US, it isn’t out in the UK – yet – (although you can get it online). In fact, my copy of A Season for Martyrs was sent to me from Karachi by the author herself.

As you can see from the photo above, it came in an envelope covered in stamps. Inside was the beautifully colourful book, signed with a personal message from Bina Shah, who was one of the Pakistani writers readers recommended to me back in 2012. The novel’s vibrant jacket wasn’t the only striking thing about it: the edges of the pages were rough from where the paper had been cut to make the copy (see below).


The pages of my edition may be rough, but the same is certainly not true of the novel. At the heart of the book is ambitious student-cum-TV-news-researcher Ali, who is caught up in covering the controversial return to Pakistan of exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007. As he struggles to reconcile his liberal political beliefs and secret relationship with his Hindu girlfriend with his feudal Sindhi family’s views and fraught history, we see something of the national tussle for control and identity played out on the personal level. With myths and episodes from Sindh province’s long, rich and turbulent past interspersing the narrative, what emerges is a powerful and complex picture of contemporary Pakistan.

Shah’s tone is one of the first things that draw you in. Whether she is portraying the health gripes of a British Empire functionary, capturing the patter of a bus conductor in Islamabad, or describing the travails of tenth century Sufi saints – ‘even if you were regarded as the guardian of all waterways […] you could tire of riding a palla fish’ – her prose is engaging, funny, direct and refreshing. It makes her well-equipped to unmask and send up the ‘etiquette of hypocrisy’ that influences much of what goes on in the novel.

Yet satire is just one element in this novel. There are flashes of beauty in Shah’s writing and succinct insights that leave you marvelling at her skill for wrapping human emotions in words. When Ali contemplates his dysfunctional home life, for example, Shah finds a powerful simile in the buildings where he grew up:

How many other houses in their sedate neighborhood, with its old houses built in the seventies, its overgrown trees lining the zigzag streets that flooded during every monsoon season, were like theirs: genteel on the outside, wasting away from neglect on the inside? How many other families lived like fractured glass, cracked but still holding up within the constraints of their frames?

In addition, the novel contains some extraordinarily gripping episodes. From the account of Jeandal Shah’s fight to the death with a cheetah in 1827 and the night-long chess tournament between the young jailer Ahmed and a condemned Pir hours before the overlord’s execution in 1943, to the violent protest that leads to Ali to witness the injustice of the police firsthand, the book brims with urgent and troubling events.

Very occasionally there is a slight self-consciousness to the telling as Shah seems to try to explain historical context or 21st-century Pakistani politics – perhaps to English-language readers in other parts of the world. Now and then, as a character steps forward with a suspiciously slick explanation of events or a chunk of exposition bobs to the surface of the narrative, it is as though the author and her protagonist glance towards the camera, briefly breaking the spell.

(That said, the issue of how much cultural knowledge to assume in readers who may be far removed from the events described is a fine balancing act. Had Shah, who is well-versed in writing about Pakistan for readers elsewhere through her journalism for publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian, included less overt explanation she may well have run the risk of leaving people behind.)

Quibbles aside, though, this is a powerful and engrossing book. It has drama, beauty, wit, characters to care about and important things to say. It is, as Ali puts it himself, a story about what it’s like ‘to be lost and adrift and struggling at sea, and then, finally, to see the shore and begin swimming toward it with all one’s might’.

Now that it’s reached the US, I very much hope a British publisher picks it up so that A Season for Martyrs makes it to the shores of the UK soon too.

A Season for Martyrs by Bina Shah (Delphinium Books, 2014)

My next book


As those of you who have followed this project for a while know, I was a writer long before I was a blogger. For the last seven years I have paid my bills by writing and subediting on a freelance basis for a variety of publications and organisations. In fact, for the first seven months or so of my Year of Reading the World, I was working five days a week at the Guardian newspaper in London and juggling shifts and commissions for several other clients. It made fitting in roughly six to eight hours of reading, blogging and researching a day quite a challenge!

What you may not know is that I was also a writer long before anyone paid me to do it. I made my first attempt at a novel when I was seven (a fantasy story set in an old castle with a bookcase that revealed a hidden world – it owed a lot to The Chronicles of Narnia) and throughout my childhood and teenage years I filled notebooks with scraps of stories and splinters of poems and half-formed things.

When I graduated from my creative writing master’s course and had to face the reality of earning my keep, I made a deal with myself: wherever I was working and whatever I was doing, I would always get up early and spend an hour or so on my own writing before I left to go and work for someone else.

For the next few years, through a series of varied and sometimes rather strange jobs (administrator, campaigns officer for a charity, invigilator for school exams, assessor of doctors’ surgeries, freelance choral singer, professional mourner – don’t ask), I stuck to my bargain. Give or take the odd duvet day, I got up at around 6am, sat at my desk and wrote.

I produced a lot of nonsense. Still, when I became a professional writer, I carried on with my regime. Before commuting into London to edit articles on planning applications for Building Design or write about the latest opportunities for international students for the British Council, I would spend an hour or so on my own (usually not very promising) projects.

Then, about four or five years ago, a glimmer of an idea came to me. I found myself gripped by the thought of a pair of identical twins swapping places in a childhood game and then one of them refusing to swap back.

It was the merest flicker of a concept, but it wouldn’t let me go. Over the months and years that followed, my mind returned to it again and again, full of questions. What would cause one child to refuse to swap back? What might it do to someone to grow up with the wrong life? What kind of family wouldn’t notice the change?

A few times, I was on the point of sitting down to start writing the story, but something always held me back. Somehow, it wasn’t ready for me (or perhaps I wasn’t ready for it).

Then A Year of Reading the World came along and for the first time in my adult life, I gave my precious early-morning writing slots over to something else, and filled them with reading and blogging.

What with everything that happened with the project and the book deal, it wasn’t until March 2013 that I got back into the swing of the old writing pattern. Having submitted my first draft of Reading the World to Harvill Secker, I found I had brainspace to focus on other things.

That was when the twins came and tugged at my sleeve once more. And this time I felt ready to take them on.

Over the 18 months that followed, in between long stints re-writing and editing Reading the World, I wrote my twins manuscript. Perhaps it was because I was in the rhythm of writing from the blogging and non-fiction book, but I found the story came to me easily and I wrote with excitement to find out what would happen next.

In autumn 2014, after several drafts, I gave the manuscript to my other half, Steve, and to my novelist friend, Emily Bullock, to read. I worked their feedback into my draft and shared it with a few more people. And then, when my lovely agent Caroline returned from maternity leave towards the end of the year, I sent it to her.

I envisaged that there would be a long process of re-writing and polishing, but when Caroline had finished reading the manuscript she told me she was very excited and that – with a little bit of tweaking – she thought it was ready to sell.

I spent about a week working on Caroline’s edits. Then, on the day that Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer was published in the UK, Caroline sent my novel, Beside Myself, out to editors.

We soon heard that several publishers were interested. I met with them and, after a few weeks of negotiation, I’m delighted to announce that Beside Myself  has been bought by Bloomsbury and will be published worldwide in English by them next year. It means my book will be produced by the same team looking after the works of writers such as Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini, Donna Tartt, William Boyd and JK Rowling.

My seven-year-old self wouldn’t have known about Harry Potter when she was scribbling my first novel back in the late 1980s, but I think she would have approved.

Ready for launch


My dress is pressed. The wine is on its way. In a few hours’ time, I’ll be taking those shrink-wrapped copies of Reading the World in the picture above to central London to join a mountain of others at the launch before my book goes on sale tomorrow and I become a published author.

I’m excited to see my friends, family and many of the people who helped make the book happen. I’m eager to hear my editor speak about the project. And I’m looking forward to getting up on stage to read an extract out loud.

But for now, sitting in the peace and quiet of the living room where this journey started just over three years ago, I’m taking a moment to reflect on this project and where it has led. I’m thinking of the people around the planet who shared their knowledge and experience with me, the supporters who cheered me on, and the amazing stories we found together.

Human beings and books are capable of extraordinary things.

The finished book

Finished book

A package came last night. This was inside. It’s the UK edition of the finished book, the book that so many of you helped make happen.

If you look closely, you can just spot me peeking up from the author photo on the inside back cover. You can’t see it from here, but I am grinning in that photo almost as much as I am now.

Roll on the UK publication date of February 5, 2015!

Book of the month: Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel


Since finishing my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to find that booklovers around the planet have kept in contact and still send me recommendations of good reads. It’s always a pleasure to hear of tempting books, but I’m particularly delighted when I come across a new translation from a country that I know to have very little literature available in English. Consequently, when I heard that innovative independent publisher And Other Stories was bringing out By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel from Equatorial Guinea, I was thrilled.

As far as I have been able to discover, this book is the second commercially available translation of literature from the country (the first being Donato Ndongo’s Shadows of Your Black Memory, which I read for my project). The reasons for this lack are various (and in some ways the situation is quite typical of French-, Portuguese- and, in this case, Spanish-speaking African nations, most of which have very little literature in translation), however the fraught political situation in Equatorial Guinea made bringing this book to the Anglophone market particularly difficult, as translator Jethro Soutar explained in an article for the Guardian earlier this year. So when my copy arrived, looking striking with its elegant cover design, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

Set on the remote island of Annobón off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, the novel explores the childhood memories of its nameless narrator. It charts his recollections of growing up in his eccentric grandfather’s house and in a society fuelled by the competing imperatives of superstition and the need to secure goods and favours from passing ships. Punctuated by a series of catastrophic events that shape the community and the narrator’s own way of thinking, the narrative examines storytelling, memory and the way we reconcile ourselves with the events, beliefs and customs that made us who we are.

In many ways, this book is an ideal candidate for translation. Because its narrator grew up in a bilingual society, moving between the vernacular and the formal Spanish-language world of school, and because he now lives away from the island, he is a natural-born go-between. Whether he is unpicking the practicalities of cutting the dates from palm trees, explaining the relative significance of Christian terminology in his mother tongue and learned language, or unravelling the beliefs behind the ostracization of she-devils (known by their penchant for nighttime sea bathing), Ávila Laurel gives him a knack for making the unfamiliar plain.

Constantly questioning, evaluating, musing and challenging, the narrator draws the reader in with a compelling hybrid style that (as he reveals towards the end of the book) blends his own recollections with the island’s oral tradition. At times, he asks our opinion on the events of the story; at others he deflates those he portrays with dry wit. When the narrative takes a turn for the shocking, his tone is disconcertingly direct, with some passages recalling the monologues of an analysand on the therapist’s couch as he returns again and again to past traumas, searching for the key to unlock their meaning.

There are fantastical descriptions that might tempt the reader to reach for the term ‘magical realism’. And there are even occasions when the narrator assumes a schoolmasterly tone: ‘Does anyone know how you get the half-formed canoe to the shore from the bush it lies in?’ he asks at one point, so that for an instant we seem to be children sitting in a circle round him, agog as he spins his tale.

In the same way, the narrative plays with print conventions, eschewing chapter markers for occasional breaks in the storytelling and, at one point, even recording the number of victims to die in the island’s cholera epidemic with a series of crosses printed in the middle of a paragraph.

As a result, the book makes for a challenging read in the best sense of the word. Leaping between registers, tenses and episodes, with long digressions and whimsical catastrophisations and speculations interrupting proceedings, this novel (if that is the right term for it) divests readers of their preconceptions. Those looking for a conventional, three-act plot with a protagonist, an inciting incident and everything tied up neatly at the end will not find it here.

Instead, what you get is a lyrical evocation of quite another world, with plenty to chuckle at and be troubled by along the way. Thronged with suspected sorceresses and a sense of the supernatural, this book weaves a kind of magic. Abandon any assumptions you might have about what a story is at the title page and dive right in.

By Night the Mountain Burns (Arde el monte de noche) by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (And Other Stories, 2014).


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