Reflections on the translation of SM 1

Scholars of Sanskrit (as well as ancient Greek, classical Tamil, Chinese…) are familiar with translations oscillating between the following two extremes:

  • A translation which closely follows the original and is chiefly meant as an aid to understand the Sanskrit text (as in Kataoka 2011)
  • A translation which smooths the text, so that it sounds as if it had been originally written in the target language

It seems that the choice of approaching more the one than the other partly depends also on one’s target language and on the cultural expectations linked to a certain literary civilisation, since readers of, e.g., English or German appear to have very different expectations concerning what counts as a good translation, with the former being much more positively impressed by texts which sound as if they had been composed in their own language, whereas the latter tend to expect from the translation that it transmits part of the flair of the original language, as if it could be partly transparent and let one glimpse the original through it (see Venuti 1995). The other element of the choice is the reader one has in mind. The first model presupposes a reader who knows Sanskrit fairly well and uses the translation only as an auxiliary, the second one assumes the reverse.

A third element worth considering regards the translator themselves. They need an extremely good command of English in order to translate in the second way (which is not my case). Moreover, they need to think of the duration of one’s translation. Each language rapidly evolves so that translating in a very idiomatic way runs the risk of rendering the text less understandable for non-native speakers or speakers who will live in a not so distant future. As a non-native speaker of English, I have, for instance, had problems deciphering the English idioms used in a translation by Anand Venkatkrishnan (in Venkatkrishnan 2015, see the discussion here: and many readers of mine had asked me what “ones” in Edgerton 1929 or “ain’t” in other authors could mean. In other words, a strongly idiomatic translation is restricted —in at least some aspects— to native speakers of the present
and immediately following decade.

My translation of the SM aims at being close enough to the text to make it conceptually understandable to a public of Sanskritists as well as to scholars of the history of philosophy and theology. It does not reproduce the complexity of Vedānta Deśika’s prose, nor does it attempt at capturing the beauty of his verses. I tried to make the translation readable also to non-Sanskritists, while being at the same time extremely cautious in not over translating the Sanskrit text. As a rule of thumb, I used the concept of functional equivalence, which was used, e.g., by Raimon Panikkar in discussing comparative theology. Accordingly, I changed passive forms (which are the rule in scholarly Sanskrit) into active ones, since the latter are the rule in scholarly English. I also made pronouns and copulae explicit and avoided causative clauses when possible, since this is the rule in scholarly English. I also broke long sentences into shorter ones, since the length of an acceptable sentence varies massively between scholarly Sanskrit and scholarly English. Nonetheless, the resulting text will not be smooth, because the source text is extremely complex and causes real head-aches to its readers. Smoothing it completely would have meant unpacking all the points it presupposes and hints at.

Whichever type of translation one favours, translating a Sanskrit text always remains a difficult task. In my opinion, this is due especially to the fact that contemporary readers lack almost completely the background assumptions which are required in order to understand each instance of communication, including philosophical texts. While reading a text by Plato, a contemporary reader educated in Europe will automatically be able to identify most of the trees, places (e.g., the Piraeus, at the beginning of the Republic), social institutions (e.g., the role of theater, the names of gods and goddesses, the presence of slaves) and the other realia he mentions. Readers will not be scared by reading geographic or ethnic names (e.g., hoi Thrâkes, in Republic A 327), nor by proper names (e.g. Socrates or Glaucon, ibid.). This familiarity is also reflected in the fact that there are English (as well as French, German, Italian, Spanish…) versions of these terms. Even more, readers will likely be at least slightly familiar with many of Plato’s ideas, such as the maieutic method or the realm of ideas.

The situation is completely different in the case of Sanskrit texts, where Euro-American readers often need to deal with unfamiliar terms, contexts and ideas. Let me call the lack of familiarity with names, works, contexts, customs, etc., circumstantial unfamiliarity and the lack of familiarity with philosophical ideas philosophical unfamiliarity. The unfamiliarity with ideas might be something readers are willing to live with —after all, they started reading a book about an unfamiliar philosopher. What they are probably not prepared to have to overcome, is the additional effort required to just overcome the circumstantial unfamiliarity.

For this reason, one might decide to strongly alter the text, in order to substitute the background assumptions with ones more familiar to the contemporary reader. This substitution may regard minor details, e.g., the substitution of “Devadatta” with “John Smith” as the placeholder for whoever a person, or the inclusion of pronouns, copulae, punctuation and other elements which can be deduced out of the context or of the literary usage of scholastic Sanskrit. I have been generous in making implicit linguistic units explicit, but I did not dare translating proper names and terms referring to realia and to culturally specific elements into more familiar ones. This is because I want to create a reliable translation of the SM that is readable for at least some decades —also given the fact that I do not foresee new translations
of the SM being prepared in the short- and mid-term. Furthermore, I did not want to limit my assumed readership to European readers, and I am not sure that “John Smith” will remain the standard way of expressing the same thing as the Sanskrit Devadatta for all future and remote readers.

Coming to philosophical unfamiliarity, there are again two kinds of it. On the one hand, there is the unfamiliarity of the main thesis one is reading about, in the present case, the idea of aikaśāstrya. On the other hand, there is the unfamiliarity of other philosophical ideas being mentioned only in passing. In the former case I believe I can expect the reader to be patient enough to tolerate some Sanskrit words and some translations sounding alien,
and give themselves enough time to understand what is being discussed. In the latter case, by contrast, I would like to provide the reader with enough information to go forward with the text without having to engage deeply with each of the ideas and theories being mentioned in it without extensive explanations. This means, that in a chapter focusing on the instrument of knowledge called śabda, I might expect the reader to bear with my complicated translation of it as linguistic communication as an instrument of knowledge', whereas I will not hesitate to translate anumāna just asinference’ and adding a word of caution in, e.g., a footnote only. Vice versa, I would translate śabda just as `testimony’ (with a word of caution in, e.g., a footnote) while translating the chapter on anumāna by a thinker of the Nyāya school.

If this principle is followed, a reader will receive a lot information about some key terms and only minimal information about less relevant ones. How can one organise this information so that a reader can find all the information they need to go forward with the main thesis while understanding enough of the other philosophical ideas mentioned?

For this purpose, one needs more than just a reader-friendly translation. One might decide among at least three options:

  1. Adding extensive comments in footnotes or endnotes (as it has been done in Preisendanz 1994)
  2. Adding the same comments within the text in separate paragraphs, perhaps in smaller font size (as it has been done in Taber 2005)
  3. Adding the same comments in an extended introduction (as it has been done in Bilimoria 1988)

The choice partly depends on one’s target readers. Philologists are more likely to appreciate the first solution, whereas the latter two are more likely to appeal to a public of more general readers, who might be more interested in the philosophical content than in the text itself. In this book, I adopt the third model (as I did already in Freschi 2012), although I will recur to the first one whenever the text demands a punctual explanation of a specific point having little bearing with its major concerns.

A specific paragraph needs to be dedicated to the use of parentheses and brackets. I used parentheses:

  1. to indicate which Sanskrit word I am translating in specific cases (i.e., while introducing for the first time the translation of a technical term, or whenever a term has to be understood in an unexpected way).
  2. to insert short explanations which are needed to understand a specific point of the text and cannot therefore be postponed in an explanatory footnote nor advanced in an introductory study.

As for square-brackets, I used them to insert words which were not present in the Sanskrit original and which could not be directly inferred on its basis. In other words, I would not put I'' inI am going” within brackets if this translated gacchāmi, since the first-person subject is obviously present in the verb form. I also did not put within brackets obvious complements, such as “sacrifice” while translating sacrifice’s names such as darśapūrṇamāsau or citrā as the full- and new-moon sacrifices' andthe citrā sacrifice’. By contrast, I used brackets to highlight for the reader that a certain concept is not actually found in the text, so as to make them aware of the fact that I am suggesting an interpretation of it. For instance, God’s attribute vimuktipriya (within the opening verses of the SĀṬ) literally means who is fond of liberation'. I rendered it asHe who wants [people to achieve] liberation’.
I also use brackets to introduce identifications of speakers.

Comments from fellow translators and/or readers of philosophical texts from afar welcome!

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

19 Replies to “Reflections on the translation of SM 1”

  1. Great reflection, Elisa. Thanks for it. The point about circumstantial familiarity reminds me of the question of how one translates haṃsa into English: if one wants to accurately reflect the zoological taxonomy for the species in question one should render it “goose”, but if one wants the reader to appreciate the metaphorical/analogical uses of the word in philosophical Sanskrit, one needs to render it “swan”. (In English it would make no sense for a paramahaṃsa guru to be called “Highest Goose”; while “Highest Swan” would still sound weird, one could at least understand that it is meant as a term of praise.)

    I agree it is above all a matter of audience, and this is something I feel acutely at the moment. My graduate training strongly emphasized the importance of staying close to the original and reflecting it, and I do see the value in that. But I want my current book project to have a wide readership – the kind of thing that could interest scholars who see it at Buddhist or even New Age booksellers. And it is a constructive philosophical argument made in English, so the meaning of the terms in English is more important than whether they reflect the Sanskrit (or Pali).

    • Yes, great example, Amod! “The great goose” would be really weird. There are plenty of kāvya examples with women compared to elephants or “fat breasts” that would also break the erotic emotion being conveyed if translated literally…

      I also agree that it would be a shame if a too technical translation would become an obstacle for learned but not philologically trained readers. I think you’ll find a good balance (as you always do on the blog!).

  2. Dear Prof Freschi,
    Will this translation be published soon and be available as a book? Can you kindly share the details if that indeed is the case, and do we get to have an Indian edition?
    Trivandrum, Kerala India

  3. Dear Prof. Freschi,

    This is a great post and I would love to see more like it. Not only is the discussion of translating philosophical and theological texts under-theorized and discussed, but this is doubly so in the case of Sanskrit. Furthermore, you make some wonderful observations and distinctions that I have not seen in the discuss of translation theory or practice before. Your points about philosophical and circumstantial unfamiliarity are particularly helpful for a whole bunch of different reasons (which I won’t list in interest of space). So thank you!

    I wanted to take a minute to ask for a few clarifications about some of your points and then make a few (hopefully interesting) contributions to this discussion.


    1) When you write: “Nonetheless, the resulting text will not be smooth, because the source text is extremely complex and causes real head-aches to its readers.” What do you mean? Do you just mean that the text is a difficult/demanding and anyone reading it will struggle? Or do you mean that it is stylistically inconsistent, etc.?

    2) If I understood your point about philosophical unfamiliarity and its two sub-types correctly, you are saying that under the discussion of a philosophical term/topic that pertain to the main thesis you are able to unpack those terms a bit more and worry less about immediate comprehension. Is that correct? Would you mind saying another word or two about that.

    1) I notice that your post about Venkatkrishnan’s idiomatic translation is quite old, but I thought that the issue with his translation was less about the idiom and more about style. If he had rendered the sentence: “Some scholarship that is! It only deconstructs the ideas of others.” I think his translation is much clearer and the first clause, although idiomatic, makes a lot more sense. (Honestly, I would recommend other changes, but I think that small change addresses the possible confusion. Then again, I am a native English speaker so the change may not do the trick.)

    2) I think a lot of your points about what kinds of unfamiliarity readers will tolerate is great and that it underscores the fact that translators often overestimate or underestimate how good of readers their audience is. The scholar Sheridan Blau has used the notion of “performative literacy” to identify good reading habits and it seems that by thinking, as you are, about the kinds of reading habits we can/should expect from our readers will help guide translation choices.

    3) Following on the notion of unfamiliarity, which I find to be so well discussed in your post, I am often left thinking that we sometimes give Euro-American readers a little too much credit. That is to say, there is some familiarity with, say, Plato and Aristotle’s philosophical ideas, but I would argue that it is not as robust as some scholars make out. The first reading of Plato, Aristotle, etc., is still a massively challenging exercise and it is mostly the readers desire to understand the text that gets them through, or at least that is what I would argue.

    4) Last, because of this point, I think we really can use philosophical texts translated from the “western” tradition as a guide to translating Sanskrit texts. I think doing so will free Sanskrit translators from a good deal of hand-wringing regarding exactly how to bring the text to English speaking/reading audiences.

    Obviously, you need not respond to all of this, I just loved your post and hand so much on my mind!

    • Nils, many thanks for the thought-provoking issues you raise!

      1) Veṅkaṭanātha’s style is not smooth and easy. I try my best to make him understandable to my readers, by making links explicit and by decoding compounds. However, I cannot change his way of saying a lot in a single sentence. The complexity, in short, is due to Veṅkaṭanātha’s tendency to overfill each sentence with a lot of philosophical content.

      2) In the case of philosophical unfamiliarity of the main thesis (e.g., the unfamiliarity of the view according to which language is eminently prescriptive), I think we can trust the reader to bear with us translators while they gradually discover all the aspects of the thesis. Therefore, I think we are allowed to keep key terms untranslated or translated with an almost equally obscure term (in the case of Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā, this applies to apūrva, which might be translated with the obscure ‘unprecedented force’, or to aikaśāstrya ‘unity of the system’). By contrast, when it comes to philosophical terms that are only incidentally relevant, I am convinced that we need to simplify drastically, so as to enable the reader to focus on the main thesis at stake. Therefore, I allowed myself to be less precise when translating philosophical terms relating to the theory of inference (such as vyāpaka) in contexts in which an inference was simply applied and its validity was not the real issue. Does this help?

      i) Which old post are you referring to?

      ii) Thanks for pointing out the work of Sheridan Blau!

      iii) I agree that Aristotle is hard (Plato’s narrative frames provide for an easier entrance into philosophical issues, imho). However, a) we all started reading Aristotle long ago and might have forgotten how hard it was, since we kept reading texts in similar philosophical style ever since; b) it is not at all sure that one will be ready to invest a similar amount of energy when it comes to what one often considers an “inferior” philosophical tradition. Moreover, c) I would not underestimate the amount of philosophical ideas from European past that just percolated in its philosophical present. For instance, think of “substance”, “universal”, “knowledge (as JTB)”, “idea” or “dualism”. Further, d) for Plato, Aristotle, Descartes… we have plenty of available teaching materials. Students can read useful summaries, sentence-by-sentence paraphrases and analyses. NOTHING like that is available even for the main Sanskrit philosophers. My undergraduate students are always surprised that they can’t find an entry on Wikipedia about key terms… Last, e) many Euro-American (or Euro-American influenced) readers will be familiar with olive oil and the like more than they are with ghee and the like. The situation is different whenever I read a translated text with a student of Indian origin, since they can immediately recognise ways of saying and metaphors.

      iv) Yes! But see points d) and e) above. What are your best practices?

      • Dear Prof. Freschi,

        Thanks for your response! Your answers were very helpful and your comments are much appreciated! Your method for dealing with central philosophical ideas and those that are incidentally related strikes me as a great translation strategy; it seems like a good way to ease readers into the text and direct their attention. People use similar methods in literary translation; sometimes they describe it as teaching the reader to read the text via translation decisions.

        i) My first comment was referring to your post from 2014 about Venkatkrishnan’s 2015 article ( My point was just that the issue may have been the idiom, but it may equally have been a style issue. In my opinion, the main difficulty with translating:

        buddhiṃ parasya bhettuṃ kevalam etad hi pāṇḍityam


        Some scholarship that is: you only deconstruct the ideas of others.

        Is that it maintains the subject (i.e. “scholarship”) from the Sanskrit in the first clause and then abandons it in the second clause and supplies one (i.e. “you”) not found in the Sanskrit (At least I assume it isn’t present but I suppose it may come in a nearby passage. But even if it does, the subject should still be kept the same or at least the person whose scholarship it is should be made clear, as you do in your alternative translation). To my eye, this change in subject confuses the point of the sentence. But, as I said, the idiom may further confuse things; I can’t really say since the idiom makes sense to me. (I think this kind of stylistic oversight happens quite often in English translations of Sanskrit. Especially when adding implicit subjects and/or changing from passive to active voice.)

        iii) What you say in response to my third comment definitely strikes me as true and perhaps I was a little hasty in my pronouncements. You are obviously right that the shared philosophical vocabulary, secondary literature, and general familiarity with circumstantial details can all be expected, more or less, of Euro-American audiences of western texts in a way they cannot be of Euro-American audiences of non-western texts. As such, they pose significant challenges for English readers not familiar with South Asia. I think my point was just to say that there are significant challenges in reading philosophical texts, east or west, and I think sometimes the familiarity of western texts gets a little over emphasized. What this means in practice is that readers and translators expect things of translations of non-western texts that they would not of western ones. Obviously, some of those expectations are warranted, but I would argue that others are not. I see this pressure as one reason people over translate non-western texts.

        iv) As for best practices, I can’t really say I have any. I think that there are definitely general concerns/considerations that should occupy every translator of Sanskrit philosophy into English, but no one size fits all approach. (Hans Vermeer has an interesting essay called “Skopos and Commission in Translational Action” that I think gets at this point as well as the issue of audience you and Lele were discussing.) I definitely would follow your approach to sentence level translation decisions, e.g. changing passive voice to active voice, supplying referents/antecedents of pronouns where possible/necessary, etc,. One difficulty facing these kinds of changes, though, is that they cannot, in my opinion, be carried out indiscriminately. For example, if the text being translated is a commentary, changing passive to active voice will require the translator to supply a subject of the sentence, but since the commentator’s voice, agenda, etc., does not always match that of the author of the root text, it is possible to attribute views to the root-text author that they did not have and obscure genuine philosophical contributions made by the commentator. I’m not sure how much that helps explain my thoughts about practice, but I find it hard to discuss without specific translation decision in mind.

        PS I had intended to track down the Blau reference, but I see you posted it below. I hope you found it interesting. Although it is obviously not about translation, I find it instructive if only to make translators think about what kind of reading they expect of their audience.

        • These tricky “impersonal” Sanskrit phrases often translate best with a gerund; for the above:

          “Some scholarship that is! merely deconstructing the opinions of others,”

          does the trick in fluent English. I found that style indispensable with the Yoga Sutra, where the whole text relies on a mere handful of explicit verbs.

          • Orwin and Nils*, thanks for your comments. Now that I have been living in an English speaking country for a while, I am less puzzled by the “Some scholarship that is”, especially if (as Orwin did) an exclamation mark is added and even better if one can imagine it being uttered with some sarcastic undertone. Still, I am afraid I will never be able to speak in this voice (it would not feel natural to me and more importantly to readers). I am still unsure about the usefulness of reproducing the style of spoken language in a written text (typical example: rendering “are” with “Bro!”) if this is meant to be preserved for several decades or even centuries.

            *Nils, since we are not officially linked as prof and student, I would suggest addressing each other per first name, as we generally do in this blog. Otherwise, I will need to edit back my comments and address you more formally in them.

        • i) I really enjoyed the Blau article. It surely explains a lot of the dismissive attitude of many towards “unfamiliar philosophy”: They are unable to bear the frustration of not understanding or not recognizing immediately the philosophical topics being dealt with.

          ii) I am afraid we all need to partly over translate Sanskrit texts, since the texts by themselves are not enough to be understood by non-initiated. This is due to circumstantial reasons (such as the references to ghee and the like), but also to the fact that these texts were meant for advanced readers who had already learnt the Vedas by heart, studied Grammar, Mīmāṃsā and Nyāya and so on. (I dealt with this topic in a 2014 article on “The Study of Indian Linguistics”).
          Thus, the problem is more the degree of over translation. For short quotes, I think we can decide to add a lot to make them understandable. For longer texts, I think we can be more cautious and and trust readers to enter the hermeneutic circle as discussed by Gadamer (and Blau) and become gradually aware of the multiple layers of meaning. Anyway, this convinced me that I should add “over translation” as a possibility to the three (Preisendanz, Taber, Bilimoria) discussed above. Overtranslating the text would mean adding directly within the text all that is missing to make it accessible for non-specialist readers (an attempt in this direction has been discussed in a recent workshop on “Translating Sanskrit Buddhist Philosophy for the Philosophy Curriculum,

          iii) I am now going to look for Vermeer’s article. Thanks for pointing it out!

  4. Following Nils’ suggestion, I read Blau (Performative Literacy, 2003) and found it really interesting for the topic at hand:

    In fact, I expect the reader to have what Blau calls “tolerance for failure” and “a willingness to re-read and re-read again”. Blau explains it as follows: “This attribute is probably related to intellectual courage and is surely related to a capacity for sustained attention, but it refers more specifically to a reader’s possession of a kind of faith in the process of reading and faith in one’s self as a reader that allows a reader to read a text a second time after feeling bewildered or blank in a first reading, and then to re-read again when the second reading is hardly more satisfying than the first. How much re-reading and frustration can a competent reader tolerate? More than an incompetent reader can. In fact, one of the principal differences between expert readers and those who appear less skilled is that the more accomplished have a greater capacity for failure. They are at least willing to experience failure more often, framing their failure not so much as failure but as a part of the difficulty that comes with the territory of reading difficult texts” (Blau 2003, p. 20). Blau also refers to the capacity to accept “the limitations and developmental nature of our understanding and the paradoxical, ambiguous, and provisional condition of most human knowledge at any moment. The least competent readers tend to confuse intellectual sufficiency with certainty and completed knowledge” (ibid.).

    • That’s an interesting lead, elisa! and starts to make your translation-theory ideas here into a new way in discourse analysis, a way past Foucault’s Power/Knowledge paradigm. And for the classical lingua francas, there very purpose/skopos as such included serving as a medium for translations, creating a meeting-ground for ideas, to rnder the world more intelligible and manageable.

      As it happened, the skopos theme framed the whole pattern of commentary in Greek philosophy, against the background of the predication theory in Aristotle’s Categories. But the unit for parsing, establishing a consensus reading, was the paragraph. And that lost the old, poetic way of pacing text with fairly regular paragraphs.

      I’m also saying that the Western style, “where we all started out,” as you put it, is here not alligned to Sanskrit practice, at least as pertains to ekārthatā. And in fact where the Orientalists started out, translating the Yoga Sutra, they read it as aphorisms, self-contained sayings or expressions. But that was not enough to decode the text, and attention then turned to “sub-texts” and the like: – a larger unit like the Greek paragraph is apparently wanting.

      • Looking back at my draft translation of the Yoga-sūtra, where the text is reordered, I see that the verses cluster in groups of thee or four, giving complex Sanskrit sentences, each with its own communicative purpose, or skopos. And they also breathe naturally, as one must expect of a text dedicated to prānāyāma!

        For a larger unit, one can look to the topos or trope, literally a place, as on the landscape of ideas. There Georg Feuerstein turned to literary theory and sub-texts, hoping to show Patañjali citing prior works. But the well-known aṣt-anga subtext doesn’t match the prior tradition of Maitrīyania sad-anga.

        The work of placing Patañjali on (or in!) the landscape of ideas remains, and the figure of Patañjali the grammarian doesn’t offer the right semantic place for the original composition.

  5. Dear Professor Freschi,
    Thanks for the reply. Its great if the book becomes available by the Open Access route.
    May I ask you a question related to Sweswara mimansa? How important is the Visistadvaita ontology and belief in building up a theory of Mimansa along with Ishwara? We know that in vyavaharika level Advaitins accept Ishwara and the rules of Karma kanda. SO, if the reader was an advaitin would he/she accept all the major strategies adopted by the author for making Mimansa at home with Ishwara. I understand that advaitin will say that from the paramartika point of view there is bada of all karmas and ishwara, but I am asking in vyavaharika plane would there be major difference?
    I am not a academic philosopher, and my interest is more of a practitioner. I hope you dont find my question naive.

    • Thanks for asking. As a disclaimer, if you want religious guidance, I am sure you can find much better guidance elsewhere. I can only speak from an intellectual point of view. Veṅkaṭanātha was not an Advaitin, but a Viśiṣṭādvaitin. He also explicitly attacks many key points of Advaita Vedānta (most notably in his Śatadūṣaṇī), including Śaṅkara’s point that a mumukṣu does not need to continue engaging with rituals at all and should only focus on the Upaniṣads. Thus,
      — for Mīmāṃsā authors fixed (nitya) rituals are never superseded (bādhita) and Īśvara is not accepted,
      — for Veṅkaṭanātha’s Viśiṣṭādvaitavedānta fixed rituals are not superseded and brahman is equated with a personal God,
      — it might be that Advaita Vedāntins would preliminarily accept rituals and Īśvara, until one is ready to give them up and become a mumukṣu. It Is open to you to consider whether this would not lead to a half-hearted participation in rituals and devotion.

      • Yes of course, I was asking purely from an intellectual point of view and I am aware that this is not the place to seek religious guidance. I was only interested in understanding if the philosophy/siddhanta of vishistadvaita itself is necessary for accepting Ishwara into the non theistic mimansa . Thank you very much for your reply.

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