Was it for this…
(Wordsworth, The Prelude)

Hamlet: Give us the foils…
King: Give them the foils…
(Shakespeare, Hamlet)

O joy! that in our embers
Is something that doth live…
… those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realized,
High instincts, before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprized:
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish us, and make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence…
(Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality
from Recollections of Early Childhood)

Emerson writes in “Self-Reliance” that “a man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within”, and that “in every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty”. Emerson might have been thinking of Montaigne’s essay “Of Experience”, and he might also have been thinking of Hamlet, the play of Shakespeare’s that seems particularly shaped by Shakespeare’s reading of Montaigne. “I would rather be an authority on myself than on Cicero”, Montaigne writes. “In the experience I have of myself I find enough to make me wise, if I am a good scholar.” And:

He who remembers the evils he has undergone, and those that threaten him, and the slight causes that have changed him from one state to another, perhaps himself in that way for future changes and for recognizing his condition. The life of Caesar has no more to show us than our own… Let us only listen: we tell ourselves all we most need.

Was Hamlet thinking of Montaigne in the graveyard scene when he finds that Caesar’s “quintessence of dust” is like his own? “Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”

I like Harold Bloom’s fantasy that when Polonius finds Hamlet reading in “the air” in Act Two, the book Hamlet is reading is Montaigne’s Essays. Bloom’s fantasy underscores the more serious point that the remarkable expansion in human consciousness which Shakespeare discovered in writing Hamlet may in part have emerged as Montaigne’s essays taught him the scope of a soliloquy, the literary form in which a man overhears himself thinking and in which we, as reader and audience, learn to overhear what is in thought as well. In the future, wherever Hamlet appears in whatever guise, this mode of listening recurs with him, for example in Pasternak’s Hamlet in 1940 in the Soviet Union, when “Imperious Caesar” becomes the Èñòëåâøèì Öåçàðåì, a “decayed [or rotted] Tsar”: “O that the earth, which kept the world in awe, / Should patch a wall t’expell the winter’s flaw!” Stalin’s reaction to Pasternak’s Hamlet was perhaps predictable (he did not permit it to be performed during his lifetime. In the late ‘30s when Stalin’s mother asked him what he had become, he told her, something “like a tsar”).

How did Pasternak interpret Hamlet’s poetry and how does Pasternak translate Hamlet’s legacy? In many ways, Hamlet’s soliloquies are the seed-time for modern poetry in English. What are the “obstinate questions of sense and outward thing”, the “fallings from us, vanishings, / Blank misgivings” that produce the semantic rhythms of Wordsworthian writing if not a legacy of Hamlet and his “high instincts / Before which”, like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, “our mortal Nature / Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised”, and “our noisy years seem moments in the being / Of the eternal Silence” (“silence” is Hamlet’s dying word)? That an extreme of doubt can also intimate immortality and not despair marks a Wordsworthian understanding of Shakespeare which Yeats would later echo in his last poems (“Hamlet and Lear are gay; / Gaiety transfiguring all that dread”) and which for best interprets Hamlet’s “antic disposition”: in a moment of extreme danger and dislocated time, Hamlet is nevertheless elated by what he has become conscious of. “[W]ho would lose / Though full of pain, this intellectual being”, the Milton’s Belial says in Paradise Lost, and although misleadingly diminished by Milton, “this intellectual being” may offer the best gloss in English for the echo found in Pasternak of Hamlet.

That Hamlet should play at madness is hardly surprising given the incommensurate impossibility he is experiencing: on the one hand, catastrophe, personal and political; on the other, a force that is very like the sublime in poetry. Thinking of Akhmatova’s poetry during the Yezhovshchina, Joseph Brodsky calls this impossibility a “splitting” apart, a “moral schizophrenia… not of consciousness but of conscience”, to be “tormented and suffer[ing] incredibly” but then to “submit to the demands… of literature”, of “a greater truth” so that “inadvertently you sin against the ordinary truth, against your own pain”. This “creates a truly insane situation”, Brodsky says, which Pasternak must have known as well and which for me best describes Hamlet’s “madness”.

Brodsky was commenting on a passage from Requiem that might almost have been lines from Hamlet:

Insanity half-hides

me in its sails –

wine on fire – gestures

to a dark valley –

and now I know the victory

I must yield to –

and overhear myself

like a stranger’s fantasy –

nothing of mine will go

with me…

“Akhmatova describes in Requiem all the horrors of Stalin’s ‘great terror’”, Brodsky says, “but at the same time… she is describing the state of the poet who is looking at everything that is happening to her”, but for whom “the writing down of this is no less an event than the event she is describing”. It is “the awareness of this detachment [that] creates a truly insane situation”. The poem “is constantly balancing on the brink of insanity”. In later years, her son Lev Gumilyov tormented her on the detachment. “This isn’t an exact quotation”, Brodsky recalled, “but the sense of Gumilyov’s words were this: ‘For you it would have been even better if I’d died in the camp.’ He meant ‘for you as a poet’”. Does a similar sense of moral schizophrenia characterize Hamlet’s cruelties toward Ophelia of which Akhmatova wrote in 1908: “May they flow a hundred centuries in a row / like an ermine mantle from his [Hamlet’s] shoulders”? How well both she and Pasternak must have learned feel of this mantle.

What does Hamlet hear when he overhears himself? In the midst of the incommensurate, the elation. If, as Bloom argues, Shakespearean characters like Falstaff and Hamlet “overhear themselves, and change through overhearing”, what they overhear is not only their thoughts per se, but songs of myself, which Bloom calls “the will overhearing itself” as it changes, in what Emerson called “the moment of transition” where “power… resides”. Bloom suggests that this power is at last recognized, not as mind or soul or thought, but precisely as will – the will both as force and as future orientation in the mind, soul, and thought (at times perhaps even like a literary allusion that is a distant echo of Shakespeare’s name): “In Shakespeare the knit of identity is not psyche or the soul but the daimon, pneuma, spark of will”, and through Shakespeare, through Hamlet pre-eminently, will becomes “the knit” for poetry in English. I think that through years of translating Hamlet, Pasternak came to find the will in Hamlet’s rhythm.

“Shakespeare’s rhythm is the basic principle of his poetry”, Pasternak writes, and its force is “clearest in Hamlet”, in the figure of Hamlet in particular, where the “rhythmic characterization” is “so vivid” that “the very pulse of his being seems to be made audible“ until “everything is contained in it”. In this rhythm what Pasternak heard was a “measured… disquiet” that does not “lend itself to quotation”, but builds to an “utmost density” and is indexed by the “incommensurate[ness]” of Shakespeare’s figurative language, by the way it “is loaded with dozens of inadequate substitutes for the one right word… that escaped him in his hurry”. Once overheard, far from causing mere inadequacies, however, Pasternak thought Shakespeare’s “hurry” became his insight, because “this is just what poetry is”, the “result of the disproportion between man’s short life and his immense, long-term tasks” which impels “outsized personalities” to “convey… vision in flashes”, as “a shorthand of the spirit”. Pasternak distinguished the “sketchiness” of Shakespeare’s verse from the finish of his prose (often he sees the one as a “rough draft” of the other), but for me the impulse to “sketch” is everywhere in Shakespeare’s writing – in that sense, it is all poetry whether in verse of prose – because, as Pasternak beautifully writes, poetry was “Shakespeare’s most rapid and immediate method of expression… his quickest way of putting down his thoughts”: “powerful, uncontrollable, disorderly, and abundant”, it “draws its strength from its very quality of sketchiness”. Of all Shakespeare’s creations, perhaps, Hamlet is Shakespeare at his quickest.

Pasternak agreed with Mandelshtam that it is will, impulse, or spirit that moves wave-like but silently through words and produces a poem. In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak writes of an impetuous “inward flow” that is like the force of a stream and that creates “by its very movement” a poem’s “meter and rhythm and countless other forms and formations, which are even more important, but which are as yet unexplored, insufficiently recognized, and unnamed”. In terms of craft what Pasternak may have overheard and translated into Russian was the “impetuousness and power” in Hamlet’s English. As a play of “inadequate substitutes”, Shakespeare’s English is also characteristically elliptical and shapes in ways it does not say as it juxtaposes its “sketches” across blanks and gaps in meaning. Russian, far more than English, is a language of ellipses and juxtapositions. In Pasternak, whom Brodsky thought wrote in “a cubist fashion”, Russian’s elliptical and juxtaposed amplitudes are particularly foregrounded; it is that which makes the poetry so radical (“the overall feeling”, Brodsky suggests, is “that you have been given the world in the multi-faceted eye of the honey-bee”). As a translator of Shakespeare, Pasternak uses his own “cubist fashion” to find Hamlet in Russian, in particular the rhythm of Hamlet’s will which “reflects English’s enviably laconic quality”: a “rhythm of free speech” becomes “the language of a man who sets up no idols”. Virginia Woolf called Shakespeare’s English a “new” language which by the 20th century had grown “old” – Shakespeare could create words in ways that she could not – but the newness may be less a matter of vocabulary than of rhythm, its free speech, so that as Montaigne says of “able minds or spirits”: their “words [can] mean more than they say” because “they teach language unaccustomed movements”. As Dalia Judovitz suggests, while Montaigne is responding to Lucretius and other Latin authors, he might also be describing what Shakespeare would learn from the Essays, either from Montaigne’s French or from John Florio’s translation. Does Hamlet emerge from the “unaccustomed movements” that an able spirit teaches language to word? Is it in these unaccustomed movements that Pasternak overheard the impulse of Hamlet’s being?

One technical choice is decisive in Pasternak’s translation of Hamlet, the decision to match Shakespeare’s verse line for line. Inasmuch as Russian words average twice as many syllables as English words, Russian translations of Shakespeare typically exceed the original by at least half again as many syllables. Pasternak’s form, on the other hand, necessarily required far fewer words and a far more laconic semantic – in relation to phonetic – rhythm. Semantically he intensifies Shakespeare’s silences, abbreviating meaning and making interpretation more and more of the willed act of self-reliance that Emerson called “the shooting of the gulf” and “the darting to an aim”. For me to find this most radical of Anglo-American poetics as a structuring rhythm in Pasternak’s Shakespeare is beautifully illuminating. If it returns a tradition I know well but with what Emerson called “a certain alienated majesty”, doesn’t the alien in this case have the strangeness that Pasternak’s friend Victor Slovsky thought was the source of literary art and that Hamlet advises Horatio “as a stranger” to “welcome”? It recalls the remarkable hermeneutic freedom that the Globe Theatre conferred on its audience.

Here is an example of Shakespeare’s “alienated majesty”: in Hamlet, Act Five, Scene Two, Hamlet says to Horatio that “there’s a special providence in fall of a sparrow” (he is echoing Matthew 10:29). Therefore, “the readiness is all”. Since for the moment Hamlet is speaking prose, the limited syllables of a verse line are not in question, but Pasternak’s “cubism” foregrounds the elliptical in Shakespeare: “but for god’s will not to vanish even sparrow” and “be ready – in this all deed” or “cause” or “action”. The substitution of “god’s will” for “special providence” overhears in Shakespeare’s play what is there for Hamlet to hear and introduces the “readiness” that he in turn wills in response. The Russian verb is complemented by its homonym, the Russian noun, that is, “abyss”, “precipice”, or “void”. The juxtaposition of god’s will both with vanishing, loss or dying, and with void or abyss – the way that the negation (??) and the conjunction (?) can provide their undersong for not even – all border on a gnostic interpretation that recalls Yeats’s late Wordsworthian reading of Hamlet (“I will find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful, when I understand I have nothing”). It intensifies Hamlet’s Lucretian response to the gospel allusion that perhaps he had been reading in Montaigne: “the readiness is all” or “to be ready – in this is all action”. Or, perhaps in this shorthand of the spirit, one could say: all will and for this.

Being, as in Heidegger, is the presencing of the present, but Shakespearean “readiness” might be the presencing of the future; for Being, Hamlet’s “let be” (in Pasternak’s translation, Áóäü ÷òî áóäåò). Hamlet’s own poetry in Hamlet (his lines for the Player King, a role Shakespeare may have originally played) concludes with will and fate at odds: “Our wills and fates do so contrary run, / That our devices still are overthrown; / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own”, Pasternak translates this: “only desires, but not their fruit”. Given such a tally, “readiness” – what Edgar in King Lear calls “ripeness” – may well be the most human response (Pasternak uses the same Russian phrase for both “readiness” and “ripeness”). When God (or a god) would rather will the void that be devoid of will, to will readiness may constitute a human responsibility. In practice modern poetry in English begins with readiness, with Wordsworth’s discovery that “it was” is “for this”, that is, for the poetic will that Wordsworth called “imagination” and that is “evermore about to be”. Perhaps “imagination” and “readiness” can be synonyms.

In Wordsworth, given the imagination’s readiness, “we see into the life of things”, Wordsworth’s version of the Lucretian “seeds of things [primordia rerum],” the minute particulars of being whose will, impulse or freedom at the heart of existence is indexed by their unpredictable swerves that impel living and dying. Montaigne offered Shakespeare Lucretius in essays that are structured by their swerves, and perhaps the Lucretian clinamen is another way of characterizing the rhythm of Hamlet’s being and his legacy for Wordsworth, this “motion” and this “spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought, / And rolls through all things”. One might call this a Lucretian self-reliance since “by swerving” the primordia rerum “wrest from the fates… the power by which we [also can] go forward wherever the will leads”, this “power of free action [that] has been begotten in us”. At the same time, Wordsworth’s vision “into the life of things” (in Emerson, “a shudder of joy with which we recognize the metamorphosis… a surprise from the heart of things”) offers as its undersong the Virgilian “tears of things [lacrimae rerum]” since by seeing into this “life” and encountering the unpredictable freedom of the particular – by recognizing our being there as well – like Hamlet with Yorick’s skull, we also recognize intimations of our mortality in this freedom (“that skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once”). The incommensurate feeling, the complementarity between the freedom in things and human tears (“things mortal touch the mind [mentem mortalia tangunt]”, Virgil says) – the gulf in-between – leads to willed readiness as a defining rhythmic response for poetry in English. And for Pasternak? For Pasternak’s Hamlet as one translates his Russian into an English poetry again?

“Translations are pointless unless their link with the original is closer than is usually the case”, Pasternak wrote. “The translation must be the work of an author who has felt the influence of the original long before he begins the work. It must be the fruit of the original, its historical consequence”, because only in that way will it “deliver” what is “the essential feature”, the “power”. Perhaps to translate Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Stalin’s Russia was to foreground Hamlet’s clinamen or swerve and its “historical consequence”, but to do so for Pasternak was also a dangerous gesture. For Stalin would Hamlet “consider too curiously” how the freedom in things, the clinamen, inevitably turns a tsar into clay?

Pasternak worked with Shakespeare’s play from as early as 1924, but he turned to it with renewed urgency in January 1939 when Vsevold Myerhold commissioned a new translation. Myerhold was arrested that March. He was brutally tortured, then shot. As a further warning to his associates, Myerhold’s wife Zinaida Raikh was first assaulted and blinded, then knifed to death in their apartment. Although Stalin intervened to protect Pasternak (“Don’t touch this cloud-dweller”, he scribbled beside Pasternak’s name on one of Beria’s enemy lists), Pasternak had every reason to expect his own destruction. Far from abandoning his association with Myerhold, however, he worked at Hamlet with increasing anxiety. What has happened “is indescribable”, he wrote at the time. “[I]t touched very close”, and “I have been haunted by the fear that some contingency might prevent my finishing the translation”. “In this extreme situation, anticipating arrest”, Lazar Fleishman writes, Pasternak’s “work on the translation focused all his lyrical and creative energy. Everything he had been unable to express… he poured into his work on Shakespeare” until it was ”Hamlet who became his alter ego”.

The translation was finished by December 1939. Still at risk, Pasternak published his Hamlet in 1940, then performed portions of it in two highly acclaimed public reading, but Stalin cancelled plans by the Moscow Art Theatre to stage the play (“why do we need Hamlet”, he asked). During the Great Patriotic War, Pasternak could feel relatively safe, but after 1946 he seemed again at increasing risk. It was in this time of renewed danger that he wrote the brief, lyric soliloquy he titled “Hamlet”, and one way to read the poem is as Pasternak’s own exceptional act of will. He shared it openly with friends, even recited it at a public reading, when, as Ronald Hingley writes, “he risked setting in motion the process of martyrdom which is invoked in the text”. At the time Pasternak said that it was necessary for him “to be ready for anything”, and that readiness characterizes the stance of “Hamlet’s” sublime sequel, “The Garden of Gethsemane”, which Pasternak composed three years later in 1949.

By 1949 Pasternak had already written much of Doctor Zhivago and presumably knew that the novel would end with a sequence of poems “by” his hero. “Hamlet” comes first in the sequence; “Gethsemane”, last. During the period when he was working at Zhivago, Pasternak wrote of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that “chance allotted [him]… the role of judge of his own time as well as servant of the future”. A fictional character, Hamlet was nonetheless a defining “historical consequence” in Pasternak’s day – Pasternak called him his own “happiness” and “salvation” – and in “Gethsemane”, Pasternak’s Jesus can be approached as one of Hamlet’s heirs. Like Hamlet in Act Five, he acts – but not in his father’s name. He forgoes his father’s power. He offers himself as the truth in a parable and, as parable, becomes the judge of centuries and (as Hegel says of Shakespeare’s Hamlet) the free artist of himself.

How does any human being become a “servant of the future”? As Pasternak composed Doctor Zhivago, I think he knowingly wrote as the future’s servant, and that his novel can be characterized by his “readiness”. Fundamental to Pasternak’s understanding of Hamlet is that Shakespeare’s play is not motivated by revenge but by Hamlet’s resistance to the melodrama that has captured him. In its plot as well as its sources Hamlet may have begun as revenge tragedy, but through Hamlet’s delays, the difference produced by his deferrals, the play becomes “a tragedy of the will”, an expansion of consciousness in which Pasternak found no “absence of will power” but “the drama of… life… preordained”. Such a life becomes for the future what memory has been for the past. “Revenge”, Nietzsche says, is “the will’s antipathy to time, to… ‘it was’”, and as such it is like the ghost of Hamlet’s father who reduces what can be said to “something already dead in our hearts.” Is “readiness” for Hamlet like the transformation of “it was” that Nietzsche imagined, the eternal recurrence that feels redeemed if the will can say that “I will it”? Despite “how ill all’s here about my heart”, perhaps to will “readiness” as Hamlet does requires a lighter, more spontaneous aim, more tentative and open, less anxious, with a quickness that Nietzsche lacks and that for Emerson offers the rhythms of “self-reliance” as they tally both experience and fate. If in Pasternak’s novel, Yuri Zhivago is the artist of this Hamlet, if as author Pasternak himself is the artist of Zhivago, then perhaps both are also the artists of a “readiness” that becomes a pulse of being, of “life” (æèçíü) with its echo of Zhivago’s name and its index in Zhivago of Pasternak’s extraordinary courage.

A few additional notes on the translations that follow: “Hamlet” introduces a lyric voice – at once an actor’s, Pasternak’s, Zhivago’s, and Hamlet’s himself – that will become at once the storyteller and the author behind the storyteller for all of the Zhivago poems. In translating these poems, I have thought of this overdetermined voice as a kind of listening as well as speaking, as a poetic will, perhaps as the “poem” in the words. It is what as a translator I also listened for, in the Russian and in my own idiom. For the most part the translations are quite literal. Where possible they foreground Pasternak’s “shorthand,” but at times they also borrow from English and American poetry. The word “foils”, for example, is Shakespeare’s; the word “tally”, Whitman’s; “in being living”, Gertrude Stein’s beautiful variation on “to be or not to be”. In working for an English version of the last stanza of “Hamlet” (for many days it felt untranslatable), I thought of Emily Dickinson’s “cubism”, how she juxtaposes ellipses and “step[s] from Plank to Plank”: “I knew not but the next / Would be my final inch – / This gave me that precarious Gait / Some call Experience.”

At one point, thinking of Dickinson, I turned to Mandelshtam who helped Celan as he approached Dickinson’s English and whose “Lines on an Unknown Soldier” include one of the most beautiful readings of Hamlet in any language: “Is it for this the skull unfolds?” The soldier is like the nameless victims from Fortinbras’s meaningless, Polish campaign, his “quarrel in a straw”. With himself both as Hamlet and another unknown soldier, Mandelshtam offers the soldier’s skull in place of Yorick’s and as “Shakespeare’s father”: “The skull unfolds from living – / the entire span – from temple to temple… and centuries / encircle me with fire.” Pasternak knew Mandelshtam’s “Unknown Soldier” as well as other Voronezh poems, and it was with this in mind, I think, that in “Hamlet” he sketched Mandelshtam’s presence in Mandelshtam’s own shorthand. In the second stanza, îñà`, the Russian for “axis” is very close to îñà`, the Russian for “wasp”. Mandelshtam had played on this near-homonym in a Voronezh poem where he is “armed with the vision of narrowing wasps” as he “listen[s]” while they “suck the earth’s axis”. Throughout the Voronezh poems mark the serendipity that the syllable îñ is common to both Mandelshtam’s and Stalin’s given names (Osip, Josif). At the same time as a reference to the “axis” powers, îñà` names Stalin’s fascism. Perhaps Mandelshtam hoped that for the leader this “wasp-sting” could work a little like Hamlet’s “mousetrap” (evidence suggests that Stalin knew what Mandelshtam had been writing before he authorized Mandelshtam’s journey to the East). In 1934, Stalin had asked Pasternak if Mandelshtam was “the master”. Did Pasternak respond in 1946 by offering Stalin Mandelshtam as another Hamlet? What would Stalin overhear in Pasternak’s “Hamlet”?

The stir quiets. I ascend the stage.

Framed against an open door,

I catch a distant echo

that my century offers.

Night blankness pins me to its axis

through a thousand opera-glasses

with a wasp-sting. Father! Abba!

Take this cup from me if it is possible.

I love your plot, its obstinate plan,

its strict arrest. I readily play

my part. But this new play is alien.

Acquit me! Let me part.

Everything drowns with the pharisees:

solitary – I – one.

In being living – no field to walk –

the tally of acts foils.

The Garden of Gethsemane

The gleam from alien, distant

stars lights the turning in the road

that circles the Mount of Olives,

where the Kedron streams.

Spring meadows open

onto the Milky Way.

Silver branches stretch

their limbs

and step into the air.

Behind a stranger’s garden,

a passage of earth, he leaves

his followers waiting, outside the wall:

“The soul grieves for death tonight. Watch

with me awhile.”

Without resisting, as things

borrowed, he dismissed

omnipotence and miracles –

now he was as human as we are.

Then night-distance edged

extermination, non-existence,

universal spaces uninhabited –

only this garden left for his existence.

And gazing through dark failures

– blank, empty – without origin

or ending – as if like tears his sweat

were bleeding, he prayed that his father

might let this cup pass from him.

Eased by prayer from deadly anguish,

he readily left his garden-refuge, then found

his followers on the grass beside the road,

scattered, mastered by weariness.

He roused them: “Now in my time

the Lord gives you life, and here you sprawl.

The hour strikes – the Son of Man

betrays himself into the hands of sinners.”

He finished – but where did they

come from? God only knows – 

a crowd of slaves and wanderers,

fire and sword, and at their head –

Judas – the traitor’s kiss on his lips.

Peter fought back, drew a sword,

cut one servant’s ear. Then Peter

listened: “Put up your sword.

Steel will not answer steel.

“Couldn’t my father arm ten thousand

winged legions to protect me. Not a hair

of mine would be disturbed – enemies

would scatter, sown without a trace.

“But now the book of life has reached

a page that binds with blessings –

we are bound – writing must come

true, let it be tallied. Amen.

“See how the centuries’ progress

becomes parable and blazes in fiery passages –

in a parable’s name, in its terrible grandeur,

I freely give myself to torture, I descend

“into the tomb, I go down into the grave,

in three days I return, resurrected. And

like rafts on a river, drifting toward me

for judgement, like convoys of barges,

centuries float out of the darkness.”

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