9 Chapter SevenThe Thing’s a Sling: Source Squabbles and Mistranslation in Chapman’s 1611 Iliad

Jo Nixon

The fundamentals of translation have drastically changed since the Renaissance. Coleridge approached the modern conception of Renaissance translation when he claimed that George Chapman wrote “as Homer might have written had he lived in England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.”[1]As the first complete English translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Chapman’s work has attracted a number of criticisms and critical responses. In this chapter, I examine Chapman’s twenty-four-book Iliad, usually dated 1611.[2] The paratextual materials reveal the translation anxieties of Renaissance England as well as the tools that Chapman believes necessary for the best-equipped translator. Chapman attempts to prove the merit of his translation—and the superiority of his Homeric understanding—through an examination and subsequent rejection of the language of previous Latin translators. But Chapman’s desire to contend with his predecessors leads him into errors and interpretations that deviate from the Greek text in ways that his Latin predecessors—whose words he cites—did not. Thus, this chapter considers Chapman’s attitudes towards translation and the manifestation of these attitudes in a particular example from the Book 13 Commentarius.


Chapman’s Promised Vision

Chapman’s claims for the validity of his translation begin on the frontispiece: “The Iliads of Homer Prince of Poets. Never before in any languag truely translated.”[3] “Truly” signals Chapman’s loyalty to Homer, a loyalty he unfurls in the prefatory material. He claims “the originall be my rule,” denying accusations that he translated out of a French or Latin version.[4] Critical examinations of Chapman’s text and paratextual material refute his claim; scholars conclude that Chapman possessed limited Greek and relied on a Latin-Greek lexicon, a parallel Greek and Latin text that Jean de Sponde compiled, and versions by Valla and Eobanus Hessus.[5] The commentary that appears after ten of the twenty-four books illustrates that Chapman’s unacknowledged editorial reliance on these Latin translations provided the opportunity for his English version to shine as an improvement on its literary ancestors. Thus, the reality of Chapman’s translation habits and his explicit denial thereof both aided the actual labor of translation and created the opportunity to denounce specific moments from the work of previous Latin translators that he discloses by name.

The prefatory material professes three central objectives: to laud Homer, to defend both the specific style of the translation and the English language at large, and to condemn other translations. The first of the front matter is the dedicatory epistle to Prince Henry.[6] Chapman presents Homer as the ultimate representative in the mirrors for princes genre:

[. . .] You should learne these rights
(Great Prince of men) by Princely presidents;
VVhich here, in all kinds, my true zeale presents
To furnish your youths groundwork.[7]

Chapman practically erases himself from this system of poetic production, appearing subtly through a reference to “my true zeale,” in three parenthetical asides addressing Henry in the vein of the one in the quotation above, and in the humbling self-epithet “worst of Poets.” Certainly, Chapman did not want to disappear from the epistle—his presence was important because Prince Henry was his patron and had promised £300 as well as “a good pension” for the translation.[8] But the subtlety of these reminders maintains the spotlight on Homer; the epistle refrains from mentioning translation or Chapman’s labor to highlight the inherent virtue of the Iliad. What Chapman leaves unstated in the dedicatory epistle—his belief that that his translation emanates this virtue unfiltered, as though Homer were speaking but miraculously in English—he emphasizes in the prefatory poem “To the Reader” and “The Preface to the Reader.”

Chapman continues the project of praising Homer throughout the verse “To the Reader” and prose “Preface to the Reader,” beginning the short, prefatory poem with an episode set in Elysium and ending the Preface with a fanciful biography of Homer. He only deviates from celebrating Homer to defend his own translation and condemn others, often simultaneously. His predecessors, he claims, failed on two fronts. First, they lacked the superiority of the English language: “Our Monosyllables, so kindly fall / And meete, opposed in rime, as they did kissse.”[9] Secondly, Chapman believes that the fundamental differences between languages requires “reach[ing] the spirit” of the original rather than relying on a “word-for-word” examination—“Greeke and English; since as they in sounds, / And letters, shunne one forme, and vnison.”[10] He condemns his predecessors as “word-for-word” translators and condemns the “word-for-word” method as awkward at best and productive of prodigious monstrosities at worst—a spectrum between a “forced Glose” and birthing a camel from a whale.[11] Thus, Chapman’s language for the right translation is both quasi-alchemical and creational—the distillation of the original’s spirit into the embodiment of the chosen language:

Alwaies conceiuing how pedanticall and absurd an affectation it is, in the interpretation of any Author (much more of Homer) to turn him word for word; when (according to Hor-ace and other best lawgiuers to translators) it is the part of eu-ery knowing and iudiciall interpreter, not to follow the number and order of words, but the materiall things themselues, and sentences to weigh diligently; and to clothe and adorne them with words, and such a stile and forme of Oration, as are most apt for the language into which they are conuerted.[12]

He admonishes Valla and Hessus by name, foreshadowing his pointed critique of their verses in his commentaries.

It should be noted that Chapman’s prefatory material specifically—and paratextual material generally—reflects the anxieties and realities of translation in Renaissance England. His focus on the virtue of Homer’s poetry shows a typical prioritization for the period: “Where a modern scholar might be interested in a contemporary translation’s merit and its precision in conveying ideas, for early modern readers and scholars the justification and the relevance of the translation are frequently as important, if not more so.”[13] Translators frequently altered the text to reflect the nuances of their contemporary political climate, “transfer[ring] a text, not only from a foreign language, but also from a foreign culture, into the target language and culture.”[14] And formal transformations were not out of the ordinary either: prose became verse and vise versa.[15] Critics typically recommend that Renaissance translations be read as original works.[16] Finally, anxiety regarding translation into English still permeated England at the end of the sixteenth century; many considered English a non-literary language, despite the richness of England’s vernacular literature by this time.[17] But rather than apologizing for his translation, Chapman argues for the eminence of English. By promising to correct any mistakes in the further translations, he postures a commitment to scholarship.[18]

Before examining how Chapman implements his vision for translation in the post-book commentaries, it is worth acknowledging that the first part of the Book 1 Commentarius—one of the ten post-book commentaries that also appear after Books 2–3 and 13–19—continues the conversation about translation that begins in the prefatory material. Chapman states, “I dissent from all other Translators,” and invites readers to judge for themselves, promising to offer a comparison between previous translations and his own.[19] In preparation, he reminds readers that his ability to convey Homer to them in English stems from a special expertise:

For induction and preparatiue to which patience, and perswasion, trouble your selues but to know this: This neuer-enough-glorified Poet, (to vary & quicken his eternal Poem) hath inspired his chiefe persons with different spirits, most ingenious and inimitable characters; which not vnderstood, how are their speeches? being one by another, as conueniently, and necessarily knowne, as the instrument by the sound. If a Translator or Interpreter of a ridiculous and cowardly described person (being deceiued in his character), so violates, and vitiates the originall, to make his speech graue, and him valiant: can the negligence and numbnesse of such an Interpreter or Translator, be lesse than the sleepe, and death, I am bold to sprinckle vpon him?[20]

Chapman believes he truly understands the epic poem; here, he clearly shows that the “spirit” he mentions in the prefatory material breathes from Homer’s epic figures. Chapman’s insistence on the true nature of the these figures manifests itself, Millar MacLure posits, in “strictly exemplary” characters—“psychological archetypes as completely rationalized as his translation and marginal notes and commentary can make them, so that they lose the subtlety and emotional range which they have in the original.”[21] For example, in the commentary to Book 17, Chapman argues that the translations of Hessus and Valla misrepresent the true character of Menelaus, which he claims Homer intended as a ridiculous figure:

Minerua inspired him with the courage of a flie; which all his interpreters very ridiculously laugh at in Homer; as if he heartily intended to praise Menelaus by it, not vnderstanding his Ironie here, agreeing with all the other sillinesse noted in his character. Eobanus Hessus, in pitie of Homer, leaues it vtterly out; and Valla comes ouer him with a little salue for the sore disgrace he hath by his ignorance readers laughters; and expounds the words abouesaid thus: Lene namque eius ingenium prudenti audacia impleuit: laying his medicine nothing neare the place.[22]

Therefore, the claim to the kernel of Homer’s poetry operates as one of Chapman’s many justifications for the superiority of his translation. In the commentaries, Chapman fulfills his promise to defend his translation against others and reveals that the basis for his supposed superiority is always foregrounded in the denunciation of previous translators.


Hidden Sources, Open Rivalries

Chapman colors the volume at large with his thoughts and opinions. Each book contains marginalia that provide summary, characters’ backgrounds, translation defenses, clarifications on characters designated solely by epithets, dialogue tags, markers for similes and phrases to be read ironically, and references to Virgil’s adaptation of the Homeric verse. The post-book commentaries serve to defend his translation and denounce others. Though connotations of literary criticism certainly surround ‘commentary’ in Chapman’s time, his use of the Latin ‘Commentarius’ evokes an older meaning, that of a notebook filled with casual sketchings of ideas.[23] This informality is further manifested when Chapman repeatedly claims that he translated the last twelve books in fifteen weeks. And in the commentaries, Chapman skips along one stepping stone of the mind to another to justify his work against a Latin version, hopping from the realms of etymology and context to broader narrative themes and motifs.

The level of engagement with the Latin sources varies throughout the text. Chapman divides each commentary into paragraphs beginning with small Latin letters, which correspond to markings in the verse. Chapman typically quotes from at least one Latin translation—most often ‘Spondanus,’ believing, as noted above, that de Sponde translated the Latin in his parallel compilation—and explains why he disagrees with the translator. For example, in the commentary to the second book, Chapman takes issue with de Sponde’s analysis of the bee simile that Homer uses to describe the Greek troops. De Sponde, Chapman claims, believes that an ideal simile shows similarity as well as dissimilarity, and thus, “vno pede semper claudicare” (one foot is always lame).[24] Chapman examines the simile and the situation point by point and accuses de Sponde of abuse against Homer:

But that a Simile must needs halt of one foote still; showeth how lame vulgar tradition is, especially in her censure of Poesie. For who at first sight, will not conceiue it absurd to make a Simile; which serues to the illustration and ornament of a Poeme; lame of a foote, and idle? The incredible violence suffered by Homer in all the rest of his most inimitable Similes, being exprest in his place, will abundantly proue the stupiditie of this tradition: how iniuriously short his interpreters must needs come of him, in his streight and deepe places; when in his open and faire passages, they halt and hang backe so.[25]

The beginnings of the commentaries for Books 15, 17, and 18 offer instances of increased engagement with his sources. Here, Chapman offers an original Greek passage and three or four complete Latin translations before reproducing his own in full. For an example, consider the commentary to Book 18. He includes the original Greek, translations from de Sponde, Hessus, and Valla, and then offers his own: “Mine owne harsh conuersion (in which I will be bold to repeate after these, thus closely for your easier examination).”[26] A further instance of increased engagement occurs when Chapman justifies his translation through the quotation of a more obscure definition for a Greek term. In these instances, he quotes directly from a Latin-Greek lexicon without revealing that he is doing so, as I will show in the next section. But even as he relies heavily on Latin texts, he advocates for his own visionary reading of the poem, one that deviates from these sources.

Thus, the commentaries reveal that Chapman’s project is much less a delving into the original meaning of the Greek verse than a strong contention with the very sources he either denies—in the case of the Latin translations—or hides altogether—in the case of the lexicon. An instance from the Book 13 Commentarius reveals how he obscures Homer through contention, mistranslation, and a strangely English vision. This commentary shows the contrast between the clear Homeric vision that Chapman outlines in his prefatory material and the reality that appears in the verse.


A Scarf for a Sling, a Jack also for a Sling

At the ‘c’ and ‘d’[27] markers within the Book 13 Commentarius, Chapman justifies his translations of σφενδόνη and ἐϋστρόφῳ οἰὸς ἀώτῳ respectively, linking those moments together not for the reason one might expect—that the expression ἐϋστρόφῳ οἰὸς ἀώτῳ appears in both instances in the Greek[28]—but because he insists that his Latin predecessors committed the same translation error in those two moments. At marker ‘c,’ Chapman misses that σφενδόνη—meaning, among other things, “stone-slinger”[29]—in the Greek original semantically clarifies ἐϋστρόφῳ οἰὸς ἀώτῳ—a phrase literally meaning “well-twisted wool”—to also signify a “stone-slinger.”[30] Thus, his translation at ‘c’ reveals a limitation of his Greek that compounds further error as the verse continues. His inability to realize that ἐϋστρόφῳ οἰὸς ἀώτῳ refers to σφενδόνη causes him to dispute the Latin translation of σφενδόνη as funda (stone-slinger) at ‘c’ and the subsequent translation of ἐϋστρόφῳ οἰὸς ἀώτῳ also as funda at ‘d.’ Ignorant of the correspondence, Chapman condemns funda as a mistranslation by claiming that stone-slingers are alien to the weaponry of Homer’s soldiers: “there being no slings spoken of in all these Iliads; nor any such seruice vsed in all these wars.”[31] Furthermore, he derides the construction of a wool stone-slinger, not realizing that that is exactly what Homer intended: “And when saw any man slings lined with wooll? to keepe their stones warme? or to dull their deliverie? and I am sure they hurled not shafts out of them?”[32] He likely comes to this conclusion because σφενδόνη is a hapax in the Iliad’s text.[33] But though the word for a stone-slinger only appears once, the concept appears twice through the connection between σφενδόνη and ἐϋστρόφῳ οἰὸς ἀώτῳ.

Therefore, careful examination of these moments in the commentary to Book 13 exposes Chapman’s methodology and necessary inventiveness. That is, in order to be able to argue that funda is a mistranslation of σφενδόνη, Chapman must offer an alternate definition for the Greek word. He finds these alternate definitions in Johann Scapula’s Lexicon Graeco-Latinum.[34] These new definitions force him to recontextualize these moments in Homer, to create a rich background as justification. Chapman’s translations at these markers are as follows: 

Atrides dart, of Hellenus, the thrust out bow-hand strooke,
And through the hand, stucke in the bow; Agenors hand did plucke,
From forth the nailed prisoner, the Iauelin quickly out;
And fairely with a little wooll, enwrapping round about
The wounded hand; within c a scarffe, he bore it; which his Squire
Had readie for him: yet the wound, would needs he should retire.[35]

. . . when swift Oileades
The Locrians left, and would not make, those murthrous fights of prease,
Because they wore no bright steele caskes, nor bristl’d plumes for show,
Round shields, nor darts of solid Ash; but with the trustie bow,
And iackes, well d quilted with soft wooll, they came to Troy.[36]

In the commentary, Chapman claims that he translates σφενδόνη as scarf because of the definition “ornamentum quoddam muliebre.”[37] This is a direct quotation from the lexicon: “A similitudine τῆς πετροβóλου σφενδόνης, dictum fuit etiam σφενδόνη ornamentum quoddam muliebre.”[38] Using ‘scarf,’ Chapman feigns flexibility in his Greek, and thus he pretends to naturally possess knowledge of alternate and perhaps even obscure meanings that his Latin predecessors missed. But the translation creates problems. ‘Scarf’ is the only word that Chapman had in the early seventeenth century to use for a surgical sling—‘sling’ would not acquire that meaning in English until the eighteenth century.[39] From the quoted passage and from Chapman’s own note—“skarffe: a fitter thing to hang his arme in then a sling”—Chapman obviously meant his scarf to operate as a surgical sling.[40] Therefore, the usage of ‘scarf’ creates an error that Chapman could have avoided if he had used ‘sling.’ Helenus wounds his hand, an injury that does not typically require the arm’s suspension. Consider this modern translation: “This then great-hearted Agenor drew out of his hand, and bound the hand with a strip of twisted sheep’s wool, a sling that his attendant had carried for him, the shepherd of men.”[41] Helenus needs to staunch the bleeding, not to immobilize the limb, and a woolen stone-slinger serves his purposes nicely. Richard Janko points out that though σφενδόνη means both a surgical sling and a stone-slinger in Homer’s day, it clearly is a spare weapon at this point.[42]

Furthermore, Chapman’s mistranslation also comes at the price of having to explain what a scarf was doing on the battlefield. This shows his ingenuity—he conjures a story out of medieval romance, saying “[it is] likely that his Squire carried about him, either as a fauour of his owne mistresse, or his maisters, or for eithers ornament: skarffs being no vnusuall weare for souldiers.”[43] This Englishing of the Homeric world, from his use of “squire” to the scarf, continues when he must translate “well-twisted wool” as something other than funda again. In the commentary, Chapman first denies what de Sponde (correctly) notes in his own commentary, that ἐϋστρόφῳ οἰὸς ἀώτῳ is a “paraphrasticall description of a sling.”[44] Rather, he claims:

It is therefore the true periphrasis of a light kind of armor called a iacke, that all our archers vsed to serue in of old: and were euer quilted with wooll: and (because ἐϋστρεφεῖ signifieth as well qui facili motu versatur & circumagitur, as well as bene vel pulchre tortus) for their lightnesse and aptnesse to be worne, partaketh with the word in that sigification.[45]

Again, Chapman copies “qui facili motu versatur & circumgatitur” directly from the lexicon.[46] And while his English example mirrors the one at marker ‘c,’ he goes even further as he takes this moment as an opportunity for English pride: “The agreement of the Greekes with our English, as well in all other their greatest vertues, as this skill with their bowes: other places of these Annotations shall clearly demonstrate; and giue (in my conceipt) no little honour to our Countrie.”[47] Thus, he considers his translation to show a unity of Homeric and English military prowess rather than clashing at all with a true Homeric vision. His desire to dispute previous translators, then, requires him to speculate and form a tale out of medieval romance rather than provide a traditional translation.



Thus, Chapman goes to considerable lengths to defend his translation of a single word and nearby phrase. Though the ‘scarf moment’ in Book 13 reveals a misunderstanding on Chapman’s part, the justifications surrounding Chapman’s word choice illustrate the rich and inventive nature of translation in Renaissance England. Understanding this moment requires the context of the ‘argumentative translator persona’ that Chapman establishes in his prefatory and paratextual materials. Because Chapman did not expect his readership to know Greek, he offers Latin translations of Greek passages in his commentaries “for auoiding the common readers trouble” and founds the authority of his translation on detailed arguments with his predecessors.[48] Thus, Chapman’s errors and his ultimately English reading in this instance do not conflict with what he considers to be a true reading of Homer. Furthermore, regardless of what his readers may know about Greek or the Iliad, Chapman fulfills his project of examining and rejecting his predecessors.


Keywords: Giovanni Boccaccio, George Chapman, University of Chicago, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jean De Sponde, Andreas Divus, Queen Elizabeth I, England, engravings, epic similes, etymology, French, genre, epic genre, Greek, Helius Eobanus Hessus, illustration, imitation, interpretation, Richard Janko, Latin, Millar MacLure, A. T. Murray, paratext, annotation, commentary, dedicatory epistles, frontispiece, marginalia, prefatory material, patron, Johann Scapula, Henry Frederick Stuart-Prince of Wales, typography, Lorenzo Valla, vernacular, Virgil



Armstrong, Guyda. “Print, Paratext, and a Seventeenth-Century Sammelband: Boccaccio’s Ninfale Fiesolano in English Translation.” In Renaissance Cultural Crossroads: Translation, Print and Culture in Britain, 1473–1640, edited by S. K. Barker and Brenda M. Hosington, 79–99. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Barker, S. K., and Brenda M. Hosington, eds. Renaissance Cultural Crossroads: Translation, Print and Culture in Britain, 1473–1640. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Buchtel, John A. “Book Dedications and the Death of a Patron: The Memorial Engraving in Chapman’s Homer.” Book History 7 (2004): 1–29.

Chapman, George, trans. The Iliads of Homer: Prince of Poets. Neuer before in any languag truely translated. With a comment vppon some of his chief places: Donne according to the Greeke By George Chapman. London: 1611[?].

Janko, Richard. The Iliad: A Commentary; Books 13–16. Vol. 4, The Iliad: A Commentary, edited by G. S. Kirk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

MacLure, Millar. George Chapman: A Critical Study. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966.

Murray, A. T., trans. Iliad. Edited by William F. Wyatt. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Raysor, T. M., ed. Miscellaneous Criticism. London: Constable, 1936.

Rhodes, Neil. “Status Anxiety and English Renaissance Translation.” In Renaissance Paratexts, edited by Helen Smith and Louise Wilson, 107–20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Russel, Daniel. “Introduction: The Renaissance.” In The Politics of Translation in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Luise von Flotow, and Daniel Russel, 29–35. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2001.

Scapula, Johann. Lexicon Graeco-Latinum. Oxford: Typographeo Clarendoniano, 1820.

  1. T. M. Raysor, ed., Miscellaneous Criticism (London: Constable, 1936), 231. Quoted in Millar MacLure, George Chapman: A Critical Study (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966), 160.
  2. I have consulted the book in the Special Collections at the University of Chicago. George Chapman, trans., The Iliads of Homer: Prince of Poets. Neuer before in any languag truely translated. With a comment vppon some of his chief places: Donne according to the Greeke By George Chapman (London, 1611[?]). All the references to Chapman’s Iliad or quire marks refer to this volume.
  3. (f)A1r. [Here, (f) refers to the first series of “A” signatures in the volume.]
  4. A3v.
  5. Chapman wrongly attributes Andreas Divus’ Latin translation to de Sponde. See MacLure, George Chapman, 171.
  6. The epistle comes unaltered from the 1609 version of Chapman’s Iliad. See John A. Buchtel, “Book Dedications and the Death of a Patron: The Memorial Engraving in Chapman’s Homer,” Book History 7 (2004): 2.
  7. (f)A2r.
  8. Buchtel, “Book Dedications,” 2.
  9. A1v.
  10. A1r.
  11. Ibid.
  12. A4r.
  13. S. K. Barker and Brenda M. Hosington, eds., Renaissance Cultural Crossroads: Translation, Print and Culture in Britain, 1473–1640 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), xix.
  14. Daniel Russel, “Introduction: The Renaissance,” in The Politics of Translation in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Luise von Flotow, and Daniel Russel (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2001), 31.
  15. Guyda Armstrong, “Print, Paratext, and a Seventeenth-Century Sammelband: Boccaccio’s Ninfale Fiesolano in English Translation,” in Renaissance Cultural Crossroads, 83.
  16. Neil Rhodes, “Status Anxiety and English Renaissance Translation,” in Renaissance Paratexts, ed. Helen Smith and Louise Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 107.
  17. Ibid., 108.
  18. A4v.
  19. C1v.
  20. Ibid.
  21. MacLure, George Chapman, 184.
  22. Z1r.
  23. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, ed. William Smith, William Wayte, and G. E. Marindin (1890), s.v. “Commentarius.”
  24. D5v.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Aa1v.
  27. What should be marked ‘d’ in the commentary is also marked ‘c,’ but the corresponding textual moments are marked ‘c’ and ‘d.’
  28. For any references to the Greek text, see A.T. Murray, trans., Iliad, ed. William F. Wyatt, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), line 600, line 716.
  29. The reasoning for my rather periphrastic construction of sling will become clear later.
  30. “Verse 600 explains that ἐϋστρόφῳ οἰὸς ἀώτῳ means a sling.” See Richard Janko, The Iliad: A Commentary; Books 13–16, vol. 4, The Iliad: A Commentary, ed. G. S. Kirk (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 119.
  31. R4v.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Janko, Iliad, 119.
  34. MacLure, George Chapman, 171.
  35. Q6v.
  36. R1v.
  37. R3v.
  38. Johann Scapula, Lexicon Graeco-Latinum (Oxford: Typographeo Clarendoniano, 1820), 1497.
  39. Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “sling, n.2,” (accessed April 15, 2015).
  40. R3v.
  41. Murray, Iliad, 45.
  42. Janko, Iliad, 119.
  43. R3v.
  44. R4v.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Scapula, Lexicon Graeco-Latinum, 1481.
  47. R4v.
  48. A3v.


Homer Among the Moderns Copyright © by Jo Nixon. All Rights Reserved.

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