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Old 05-05-2012, 11:58 PM   #1
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Fictional Non-earthen Languages

I've been contemplating the idea of portraying bits and pieces of a fictional language for my fictional species in my WIP. I am inclined to avoid this all together, but this species does speak not-english, too. In fact they have two separate dialects depending on what sub-division the individual is born into. Then there's 'the common tongue,' which everyone speaks: English. Kos I speak it.

Thing is I'm not sure how to execute any such fictional language in a way that doesn't blatantly irritate the reader. In them old roleplays where I used to do something like this it was easy to just spout off a random set of characters and leave it at that; no one asked a thing. How some ever, I think that's a bad idea in novelwork. I mean like:

"Jakyl U aobai mamaju'quy ey derp." He said.
"Totally." Replied his Mary-sue companion.

So if there's anyone out there with some suggestions on how to do this kind of thing, I'd greatly appreciate it.
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Old 05-06-2012, 02:16 AM   #2
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Just one readers point of view here, but I hate other languages in books, real or imagined.

Whether it be French, Minbari or Klingon, if the character understands it, it should be in English so that I understand it too. If the character doesn't understand, the reader should be equally baffled, even if the reader is fluent in a language the character is not.

Just me though.
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Old 06-09-2012, 09:43 PM   #3
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Just one readers point of view here, but I hate other languages in books, real or imagined.
Dito. I would just say they spoke. The readers eyes are just going to slide over it anyway, since its basically nonsense.
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Old 05-06-2012, 03:27 AM   #4
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Say something along the lines of.

Kartheth said something odd, as if he had something stuck in his throat.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" I asked.

"Don't worry, it's Jeretis, it's an alien language," Les told me. "I'll translate:
"He wishes for you to pull down your pants--is what he said."


Don't write it out, it really confuses the reader. So just have someone translate it, or understand it with context to the language.
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Old 05-06-2012, 03:41 AM   #5
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Presumably you know what language your MC thinks in. So even if it's a fictional language, you of course have it represented by whatever tongue your target readership speaks fluently.

From there, Will's approach works very well when dealing with foreign tongues. Or if your character understands what's said in the other fictional language, then perhaps a speech tag like: "'Pull down your pants!' he said in Jeretis" the first time the Kartheth-role-fillin' character speaks in that scene. It leaves the implication that anything else the same character says in the same scene is in Jeretis unless otherwise stated, so you don't have to beat the reader over the head with reminders and feel like a klutz.

One thing I can never find (or never find enough of) in fantasy is an awareness of differences amongthe fictional languages rather than just the question of being understood. For example, having a POV character translating note that, "The Fancypantsians do not have a word for 'drunk'", or mimicking the way a nickname forms for a person IRL who lives among people who can't speak the language he or she was named in.

Depending on how much time you want to put into world-building, it may be worthwhile to pay attention to discrepancies within a language as well. My MC is old-fashioned; he'll respond to news of a breakup with "My condolences." His younger companion, OTOH, will just go "That's harsh."
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Old 05-06-2012, 04:30 AM   #6
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It may depend on whether the POV understands the language.

If not ( I've used this) 'He said something brutal and violent sounding, some X words that I had no hope of understanding: ie give a flavour of what the MC heard. Maybe he just mentions (as I might in this world ) it 'sounded French' or whatever language.

If the MC does understand it, then it's easier. 'I think we should disembowel them and stick their head on a pike' X said in Y language.

'Well yes, I broadly agree' I said in (z language they normally talk in), so the guards would understand 'But who'd clear up the mess?'
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Old 05-06-2012, 04:50 AM   #7
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Funny - I'm writing a flash fiction "character study" for my fantasy WIP at the moment. Just writing a little piece from the perspective of one of my minor characters about an important event in his life to get a feel of his character. Up until now I've written the full WIP entirely from the perspective of a character that speaks one of two foreign languages, but there hasn't been any dialogue with the other foreigners yet so this problem hasn't cropped up. However, in the flash the protagonist speaks a different language to the MC in my WIP, so I had to imagine it from the outside.

I dealt with it by having my guy pick up odd bits and pieces from the language and describe it as babbling,

Quote:
“…ipsia a phané, in adraiess hadeo…”

“…agoni ey Chesh’r a thunta ecleipis…”

Two guards came down the corridor babbling in Hekathon.
I'm also thinking of changing the word "babbling." The Greeks used the phrase "barbarian" to refer to anyone that spoke a different language to them, and it's partly thought to be because foreign languages just sounded like "bar bar bar" to them. With that in mind, I may make up a word that's more appropriate to the language here and keep an eye out for any repeat phrases.
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Old 05-06-2012, 06:03 AM   #8
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This is going to sound weird.

Go find old Bob Newhart comedy routines. Bob Newhart had whole routines where he was on the phone with someone we never heard. He crafted responses that told the joke AND told what the other side of the conversation was without interrupting the joke to do it.

I think the interaction between Chewbacca and Han Solo in the Star Wars movies ran with that idea.

I think that's possible to work. But it won't be easy. If you use the language, and you aren't consistent, people are going to fall out of the scene, and fairly rapidly lay the story aside.
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Old 05-06-2012, 09:44 AM   #9
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I love conlanging(The hobby of constructing languages), and my degree is in Liguistics. But even with all of that, I have to agree with the earlier posters.

You could probably get away with words and phrases, or ritualized language, such as translations of "thank you" and "I'm sorry", but having more than a few sentences of a conlang or foreign language in the book is going to put off many readers.

It's much easier to mention that a character is speaking another language and then translating if one of the characters understands it, or not if they don't.
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Old 05-06-2012, 03:29 PM   #10
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Beware of unintentionally introducing jokes the reader is going to make at the characters (and language's) expense. In Babylon 5 (which I seem to be referring to an awful lot lately) the Minbari word for "no" is "ni" - it took about three seconds for me to make a "the Minbari's who say ni" joke.
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Old 05-06-2012, 05:04 PM   #11
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One thing you might want to do is to have languages bleeding into each other. English evolves. So we can expect it to evolve in the future by absorbing foreign words. English has taken words like pork and beef from Norman French, and pyjama and bungalow from India. The language just internalises them. They become English.

I can imagine that a future version of English would be the same. If we ever encounter an intelligent alien species, it seems highly likely that we would start to trade words. If I show an alien a carrot, he will probably call it a carrot because he won't have an alien word for it. Similarly, if he whips out a long blue fruit called a "haaju", then we'll start talking about haaju smoothies, haaju and peanut butter sandwiches ...

But I'd be wary about having long passages in an alien language. The reader will probably just skip them until they get to a bit that they can understand. The odd word of phrase, maybe.

Think of it this way - how do non-science fiction books deal with non-English speech? Take a book like Rising Sun by Michael Crichton. It deals with the clash of cultures between the US and Japan, but it doesn't have long passages of text in Japanese. For a more modern source take a look at Avatar. It uses phrases from the alien language but not whole chunks of speech.

Star Wars used alien languages, but got around it by having subtitles. Not so easy to do in written fiction.
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Old 05-07-2012, 10:33 PM   #12
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if he whips out a long blue fruit called a "haaju", then we'll start talking about haaju smoothies, haaju and peanut butter sandwiches ...

.
I want a haaju and peanut butter sandwich.


Now I'm a Cormac McCarthy fan, and I know a number of folk don't like his lack of punctuation... what I don't like is huge chunks of a foreign language, usually Spanish, just dropped in with no translation at all.

On another note Feersum Endjinn by Iain M Banks is written phonetically... it can get quite wearing.
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Old 05-06-2012, 09:42 PM   #13
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I don't believe I represent the majority of readers by any means - as a kid, I used to get MAD when I picked up a new Star Trek novel and the author hadn't rendered Scotty's accent, and even now I'm massively fond of any kind of 'wrinkles' in speech.

However! I think most folks here would agree that adding flavor to your aliens through their speech would be a great thing - it's just a question of how to do it without rankling the readers, yeah?

Anyway, some ideas:

1. The Chewbacca Directive

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Originally Posted by Shirokirie View Post
"Jakyl U aobai mamaju'quy ey derp." He said.
"Totally." Replied his Mary-sue companion.
--this bit you have here would totally work, if it were clear from the Mary-sue companion's response what the original expression was. (And it can be used to great effect, as Chewie and Bob Newhart demonstrate.) It can work even without context, though: a scary alien hollering and pointing a laser-rifle at Our Hero is even scarier if we can't understand what he's saying.


2. A Sprinkling of Dora. Have you ever seen Dora the Explorer, or what's that newer one... Ni-Hao Kai-Lin? In both cases, they're kids shows in English, for English-speaking children, and they sprinkle in just a little bit of very-basic Spanish or Chinese - "hola" and "uno, dos, tres" so on. I think that a very few words like that can give your story a nice flavor, as long as you're A) sparing in its use, and B) don't require the readers to learn and remember the words in order to enjoy the story. Star Trek is a good example here too: they sprinkled in "Qapla'!" for the Klingons and "Live Long and Prosper" for the Vulcans and all manner of "Rules of Acquisition" for the Ferengi, but the stories are crafted so that you can still get what's going on even if you've never heard of those things before.


3. A Wrinkle in English. This is hands-down my favorite. Render the speech in English, but use it to show the mentality of the original language behind it. I wrote something once with a character lagging behind the group, his sandal-laces flapping loose, and shouting "Wait, wait! My foot is undressing himself!"

--that does require a little bit of slowing-down to understand, so I try not to do it too often. I think the best way is to craft it so that the reader who's just turning pages can get on with the story unimpeded, but the careful, interested reader is rewarded with nifty Easter-egg bonus knowledge about the people and how they think.

Good luck, regardless; if you are as thoughtful in your writing as you are in your thinking-about-it, I expect it'll be an excellent story!
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Old 05-07-2012, 06:13 AM   #14
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I've been struggling with this as well. The tribe of people (and their sentient wolves) that my story really centers around speak their own language, and are very isolationist. The MC actually comes from their traditional enemies, and has no way of knowing their language aside from being taught it. In the first drafts, I simply had the wolves magically "give" him the ability to speak their language.

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Overlaying her growls though, he could faintly hear a female voice, broken in parts.
“For the … Borsk, …make it … wriggling? … never learn …!”
“Din!” called Borsk. “Stop struggling! She’s not going to hurt you. Trust me, and trust her. You’ll understand in a moment what she’s trying to do.”
This irked me; it was out of the blue, and the ability to have magical telepathy instant training or what-have-you annoyed the crap out of me. So I experimented again, with having the character Borsk (a native) speaking English still, but in a broken fashion to represent it wasn't his native tongue. I still left in the instant lessons, and from that point on, everything was "normal".

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He struggled, and the wolf growled, and then he felt a sudden strange sensation in his mind, as if a key was struggling to unlock. Overlaying her growls now, he could faintly hear a female voice, broken in parts.
“For the … Borsk, …make it … wriggling? … never learn …!”
“Din!” called Borsk. “No struggle! She not hurt you. Trust me, and trust her. You understand in moment what she do.”
It still bothered me. So I took an even more drastic step, cutting out the magical-ness entirely, and having Borsk teach the MC bits of his language pretty much via montage. I ended up with something akin to this:

Quote:
Borsk sighed exasperatedly, and barked something to Grynna. She, in turn, whined back to him, and Borsk smiled and shook his head. “I show you. Come here, boy.” Din did so, and Borsk showed him the proper way to fasten the straps and tighten them so the saddle would not move on the wolf’s back. With his help, Din managed to clamber up into position and quickly shoved his feet into the stirrups to steady himself.
“Lean over her,” said Borsk encouragingly, making an angle with his hand to try to illustrate his point. “If you low, and she low, you both fall no so far, see?”
Din shook his head. “What?”
Borsk sighed. “It…it…” he broke off into that wolfish language again, a long string of angry snarls. “Art of balance,” he said, trying again. “When both move together, you fall no off. See?”
I ultimately ended up just scrapping all of it and leaving it the first way. What I was hearing from people trying to read it was more or less, "We want English, and will sacrifice believability to have it." Given that's me phrasing it rather harshly/bitterly, but it's how I felt. Personally I love conlangs, and have no problem with large chunks of unreadable text in a story. I'm the kid who sat there reading Lord of the Rings and memorising bits of Elvish and reciting them to my family.
What I did end up doing is that I would put in little snippets of conlang say, when a character was cursing particularly angrily, or for rituals. Also trying to find ways to get their "foreignness" across via normal dialogue, like someone above me said. For instance, there was one point where a wolf asked the MC a question, and upon receiving the answer it wanted, replied, "My ears howl to hear it."

Long rambly bits over, those are my thoughts. I look forward to hearing other people's.
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Old 05-07-2012, 10:14 PM   #15
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You should avoid whole sentences in a different language and stick the language you are writing in. I've tried it a couple of time and every time it just comes out bad.

The exception to this is words and phrases that a reader can understand. They may be in another language but are used often enough and are explained, either directly or by context, that the meaning is clear to the reader. The meaning of everything you write should be clear to the reader, always!
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Old 05-08-2012, 09:49 AM   #16
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I agree with everyone above, I only want to note that calling the main language "the common tongue" is overused in fantasy. I think you have the chops to come up with a new name, seeing as you are contemplating creating entire languages! So I encourage you to give it a go.
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Old 05-08-2012, 06:45 PM   #17
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I agree with everyone above, I only want to note that calling the main language "the common tongue" is overused in fantasy. I think you have the chops to come up with a new name, seeing as you are contemplating creating entire languages! So I encourage you to give it a go.
I wasn't even planning on distinguishing 'the common tongue' as the common tongue apart from everyone understanding it, bar those who can't speak it. Main reason being is that I wanted to call it "Gyuton" but I'm not sure how well that name would work [for me].

Svuung, Tswaaii and Gyuton.

I've been playing around with some of these ideas you guys have put out in this thread. Thinking of mixing quite a few of them together, really. Though I don't have any written examples to toss up, like others have.

Still, wow.
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Old 05-08-2012, 06:55 PM   #18
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This problem doesn't just exist with made up languages. When a language has a radically different grammatical structure with radically different implications, it can be impossible to bring across.


The different levels of formality in Japanese allow (from what I gather) for a highly sophisticated way of showing a great deal about character attitudes toward each other.

The difference in French in meaning in using tu (you intimate or informal) or vous (you, formal or distant) is vast.

Ancient Greek had three grammatical numbers: singular, dual, and plural. I struggled to try to use this in a book, to have one of my MCs express the closeness of their actions together (the two of them against the world in a sense) by trying to render the dual in English. Eventually, I had to give up.
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Old 05-31-2012, 10:32 PM   #19
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This problem doesn't just exist with made up languages. When a language has a radically different grammatical structure with radically different implications, it can be impossible to bring across.


The different levels of formality in Japanese allow (from what I gather) for a highly sophisticated way of showing a great deal about character attitudes toward each other.
I'm trying very hard to fudge this. Japanese roughly has three that I'm aware of. Plus a slang version just for males.

Super formal. (You can fudge this one with adding more questions and indirect speech)

Formal (Indirect speech, more statements among males)

Casual (Shorter sentences, more statements than the previous two.)

Boy Speak. (Really, really difficult to translate. I can't even do it well when I'm doing subs.)

And then you get pain in the butt--how do I distinguish between both yakuza and boy speech v. Osaka version and Tokyo version with the same weight?

Though doing Korean is far harder.

Korean has 7 levels of formality, which have different levels of people using it and then age group distinctions. To say it's a headache is mild.

I'm trying to fudge it by sentence length and little cues. But I can't quite squeeze out all seven speech levels. (The best I can squeeze out of English is around 3 to four). AND I have to contend with the age speech--like the feminine middle age speech versus the young age speech and classes and also regionalities.

Pain in the butt. Kinda easier since I have the basics of both Japanese and Korean, so I can indicate by sound arcs, etc how they are. I'm working on Sanskrit, Pakrit, Greek and Old Chinese (which I'm roughly basing on Cantonese and Mandarin since no one knows what it actually sounded like).

I say it's easier to just mention the sounds the language makes and the changes in grammar. You can also rough out grammar mistakes by accent too, or trying for pidgin. But clearly, I'm a linguistic nut job if I'm trying to nail all of those languages for a book.
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Old 05-30-2012, 05:07 PM   #20
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"Come and eat," she called. "The bregyd is getting cold."

In that strange and far-off world, bregyd is their word for stew.

Except, the word "cold" translated across to English just fine, the phrase "come and eat" translated just fine, so why use bregyd instead of stew?

I can remember even as a kid getting annoyed when authors would do that because it yanked me out of the story because it was obviously a made-up word.

So, I might be the only one who feels that way but just in case I'm not, maybe something to think about when looking at using non-Earth languages?

Jay
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Old 05-31-2012, 04:49 AM   #21
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Originally Posted by Jay Jennings View Post
"Come and eat," she called. "The bregyd is getting cold."

In that strange and far-off world, bregyd is their word for stew.

Except, the word "cold" translated across to English just fine, the phrase "come and eat" translated just fine, so why use bregyd instead of stew?

I can remember even as a kid getting annoyed when authors would do that because it yanked me out of the story because it was obviously a made-up word.

So, I might be the only one who feels that way but just in case I'm not, maybe something to think about when looking at using non-Earth languages?

Jay

It's generally considered good practice to "translate" any word you possibly can. Don't call a rabbit a smeerp, and all that.
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Old 05-30-2012, 08:42 PM   #22
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I find it annoying. It detracts from the story and just pisses the reader off. I remember reading a book once that was based on a south american tribe. All the names in the book were 12 characters long with a bunch of x'uaxlw....etc...

Authentic? Yes. Annoying? Even more so. It took away from the experience. Don't mental masturbate your story to the point it frustrates the reader. My 2 cents.
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Old 06-01-2012, 01:39 AM   #23
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It's generally considered good practice to "translate" any word you possibly can. Don't call a rabbit a smeerp, and all that.
But also don't use the phrase "Stockholm Syndrome" when you're writting about Olde Generick Magick Kingdome that's in a world that doesn't have a Stockholm.

This is something I struggle with a lot, because I don't want to use modern slang -- or super-specific slang -- in a fantasy setting, especially if it's words like "gay" used in the sense to mean "LGB"; which is frustrating, since I am writing about LGBT characters in a fantasy setting and I need a plausible thing for them to call themselves, since "gay" sounds too ... modern for a 1920s equivalent setting.
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Old 06-01-2012, 04:06 AM   #24
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But also don't use the phrase "Stockholm Syndrome" when you're writting about Olde Generick Magick Kingdome that's in a world that doesn't have a Stockholm.

This is something I struggle with a lot, because I don't want to use modern slang -- or super-specific slang -- in a fantasy setting, especially if it's words like "gay" used in the sense to mean "LGB"; which is frustrating, since I am writing about LGBT characters in a fantasy setting and I need a plausible thing for them to call themselves, since "gay" sounds too ... modern for a 1920s equivalent setting.

Queer or poof were common derogatory slang around that time, if I recall. Also fairy, maybe. I don't know that there was any particular self-referent term used among LGBT people during that time period.


I think it should be pointed out that if you're doing a historical period, then terms like Stockholm Syndrome don't need equivalents, because it's a modern concept. Even if you're doing a story that deals with it, if we're being true to the period, then the syndrome wasn't a thing to be referred to.
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Old 06-01-2012, 12:44 PM   #25
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Queer or poof were common derogatory slang around that time, if I recall. Also fairy, maybe. I don't know that there was any particular self-referent term used among LGBT people during that time period.
See, I need self-referencing terms that make sense within the culture in question, which is where I'm stumped. Guessing this is an acceptable reason to invent slang, but well. Want to err on the side of comprehensibility.

Quote:
I think it should be pointed out that if you're doing a historical period, then terms like Stockholm Syndrome don't need equivalents, because it's a modern concept. Even if you're doing a story that deals with it, if we're being true to the period, then the syndrome wasn't a thing to be referred to.
That was, sort of, my badly-made point.
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