Found in Translation

Literature is a crucial piece in the puzzle of Yugoslavia’s memory. Let’s give English translations a read.

Part 2 of 2. With Vesna Marić (The President Shop), Eamon McGrath, and Buzz Poole (Sandorf Passage).

Listen: Podcast Episode #90

Found in Translation: Episode #90 Transcript

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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your librarian Peter Korchnak.

Today we’re going to continue the story about literature from the former Yugoslavia, specifically publishing books by ex-Yugoslav authors in English translation.

But before we do I want to give a shout out to a few new supporters. Thank you, Julija, Milica, and Nik for your pledges and contributions. You help me keep the show on the digital air and writing the story of Yugoslavia’s memory. I appreciate you.

Writer and critic Eamon McGrath, who outlined Yugoslav literature for us in the previous episode, the first in the series, bemoans the paucity of English translations of Balkan or ex-Yugoslav authors.

EAMON MC GRATH: It’s a shame that there is not enough focus, or I think, interest I guess, this far in authors in the region, because there’s so much, there’s so many amazing authors, so many amazing books that haven’t been, yet properly, I think, read or appreciated or understood outside of the region.

But I think translation is definitely the biggest bar there. But hopefully, that going forward, they will be increasing interest and focus on all these writers, both from the past as well as writers today who are writing great, new works.

PETER KORCHNAK: And there is. Yes, you can count the number of publishers who programatically put out translated works by ex-Yugoslav authors on one hand. But those that do so really mean it. In the UK, Istros Books quote, “works hard to bring you the best that Central and SE European literature can offer.”

In the U.S., Dalkey Archive Press specializes in the publication or republication of lesser-known, often avant-garde works from all over the world, including quote unquote Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

And then there’s Sandorf Passage.

I spoke to its founder and director, Buzz Poole. He is based in South Portland, Maine and is also a writer and editor.

In Poole’s telling, the story of Sandorf Passage began at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair where he met Ivan Sršen, the head of the Zagreb-based literary agency and publishing house Sandorf.

BUZZ POOLE: And then I became the managing director of something called Black Balloon Publishing, which is now an imprint of Catapult. And I had always, as a reader been interested in translated books, because I like to travel, I like to know about the world, and translations are a great way to do that, to open up, you know, all parts of the world, especially without even really leaving home.

And so I reached out to Ivan and he connected me with Robert Perišić and I published Our Man in Iraq, which met with great critical acclaim here in the States after it was published. It was in the New Yorker and on NPR.

I can’t think of another Croatian author I had read prior to reading Perišić. He’s a friend now, so I’m very biased, but he’s an exceptional writer.

There are many things I really adore about Our Man in Iraq. And one of the themes that I continue to be intrigued by in writing from the region is that how, as an American, who is in his late 40s, the idea of war is not a foreign concept to me. But war is something that always happens over there, doesn’t happen here. And, of course, people this my same age who were in Yugoslavia, in the early 90s, you know, war was happening in their back yard, and that casts those experiences of growing up in such a different light. And it comes through in the fiction, of course. And I was really drawn to that, and I continue to be really drawn to that.

And, of course, because those wounds are still, you know, very close to the surface, it’s still a really prominent theme and in a lot of what I read from that part of the world. For me as a reader, it’s far more interesting than reading about some MFA student sitting around trying to figure out how to write a novel.

PETER KORCHNAK: Sandorf Passage is a US-based division of Sandorf, which quote “publish[es] works that create a prismatic perspective on what it means to live in a globalized world. It is a home to writing inspired by both conflict zones and the dangers of complacency.” End quote.

Sandorf Passage is a nonprofit organization, funded in the past in very small part by the government of Croatia and also by a European Union grant that aims to bring works by authors from the former Yugoslavia to the Anglophone world.

BUZZ POOLE: There was some Ministry of Culture money made available to do some English language, domestic editions of Croatian books, most notably, Journey to Russia by Miroslav Krleža. And then Ivan and I got thinking about how to kind of expand this and bring more of these books into the Anglophone world, and Sandorf Passage was born.

I also wanted to stay true to the mission of, you know, celebrating this international work. And I didn’t want to have to answer to investors for that.

PETER KORCHNAK: With limited marketing budgets and a changing media landscape where newspaper and magazine sections dedicated to book reviews shrink and new slash social media preferring short and shallow narratives rise, it’s hard out there for any independent book publisher, let alone one publishing translations from an obscure region of the world.

BUZZ POOLE: But we now walk around with the world in our pocket, essentially, with our phones. And so you know, not everything seems so foreign or so distant. And I think it’s refreshing to read an author from a region or country you don’t know about, you only know very little about or you just, you know that, you know, Game of Thrones was filmed there or, you know, whatever it is.

And then it comes down to just the quality of the storytelling. There are incredible contemporary authors from Croatia and Slovenia and Bosnia Herzegovina and Macedonia and the entire region. And we’re lucky to publish some of them.

PETER KORCHNAK: The catalog of Sandorf Passage includes both fiction and poetry. The way authors and books are selected for the catalog is simple.

BUZZ POOLE: We are fortunate that we have relatively quickly garnered a reputation for doing good work, especially with authors from this region. You know, we couldn’t publish them all, there are too many of them. And so we’re approached by authors, by translators. Again, Ivan Sršen who lives in Zagreb, he’s publishing some of these folks, he’s reading others that he doesn’t publish. So we have these conversations about what we think will fit with the list, and what makes the most sense to us.

PETER KORCHNAK: Robert Perišić is from Croatia, as are Ivana Bodrožić, Marija Dejanović, Tatjana Gromača, Monika Herceg, and Ivan Vidak.

Writers from Slovenia include Marko Pogačar and Sebastian Pregelj.

Writers from Bosnia and Herzegovina include—

BUZZ POOLE: Lejla Kalamujić, who wrote Call Me Esteban, which is a really great tale of queer identity, with a backdrop of Sarajevo during the war, and losing her mother well before that, and this kind of ghost of her mother who’s omnipresent everywhere. It’s a beautiful book and, you know, unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

PETER KORCHNAK: Other Sandorf Passage writers from Bosnia and Herzegovina include Bekim Sejranović and Vesna Marić who authored the first book Sandorf Passage ever published, The President Shop, in 2021.

BUZZ POOLE: The President Shop is a great kind of allegory for the socialist experiment that got some great reviews and attention. And I think it was overlooked, because it was the first title from a fledgling publisher that went live kind of at the height of the pandemic lockedown. But that’s a remarkable book, and just, you know, the storytelling is incredible.

PETER KORCHNAK: Marić is a native of Mostar, born in 1976, the same year as me. At age 16, she fled the city at the beginning of the war, in the early 1990s, and settled in the UK. She captured that story in her debut book, Bluebird, a memoir published in 2009 by Soft Skull Press.

Marić returned to her home town in the early 2010s for a few years, to teach English at an international school, but left again once her daughter became of school age and would have had to attend a segregated school, that is a two-schools-under-one roof type of educational institution (for more on this phenomenon check out Episode 46, “Two Schools Under One Roof.”)

Mostar today is of course not the same city Marić left 30 plus years ago.

VESNA MARIĆ: It changed in the same way that the whole country changed: it was decimated spiritually by the war. I think after Vukovar Mostar had the highest rate of damage, physically, in terms of— basically, I think every single object in the city, physically damaged in the war, so that’s how bad it was.

Obviously, it’s divided in a way that’s not visible, but it’s administratively very much active.

You have two post services, two [INAUDIBLE] companies, two electricity companies, two of everything so it’s very much a sort of administratively divided city.

PETER KORCHNAK: Croats on one side of the city, Bosniaks on the other…a legacy of the war and of post-war politics.

VESNA MARIĆ: It’s very different where I was growing up, none of this was the case. In some other ways, it’s still exactly the same: small town. You know, everyone knows everyone, everybody gossips about everybody—there’s a lot of that. But it’s a very like this collective trauma on a massive level, and it’s just not looked at at all so it’s a difficult place. I think, it’s a very traumatized place.

And I think that is the reason why the past is so heavily present. It haunts everything because of this huge trauma of what happened in the war and how it fell apart and how it never really come to terms with itself.

There’s very few spaces where you can kind of forget about it.

PETER KORCHNAK: “Wherever one goes inside the former Yugoslavia, one comes up against the past,” writes Marić in an essay published in the Granta magazine in summer 2020. “It is a past that is dismembered and fragmented – what philosopher Boris Buden explains as ‘an ubiquitous past [. . .], a past that is more current than the present and more uncertain than the future. A past that everyone is invited to judge, to recall, to understand and to (re)create on their own, individual terms. A past that is not really a dimension of actual time, but is in fact, a cultural artefact.’”

Still, there’s a bit of a silver lining in all this for Marić, in the passage of time.

VESNA MARIĆ: Bosnia is no longer synonymous with the war to everybody. Because a lot of people who are now in their 30s, don’t remember the war, they have no idea that it ever happened. So it’s quite interesting that there’re entire generations of people who just don’t associate the region with that through ignorance, which is wonderful, bliss. There is that and there is tourism… So it’s been liberated the little bit from those kind of heavy associations.

It’s kind of a blessing but, you know, as soon as there’s anything to do with nationalism, or to do with the war, the news will publish that, you know, they’ll write about that. So there’s really only one way we can get any attention, which is really sad.

PETER KORCHNAK: The President Shop is about a family living in an unnamed city in an unnamed country, where they own a store selling merchandise featuring the founder and leader of the Nation, whose image is found in every home there. People young and old admire him. Take the daughter of the family. Quote, “The President was soft, jolly, wise, practical, tough, fair, focused, and, frequently, funny. Mona admired the President’s determination and his sense of fairness and loyalty—he never betrayed his comrades even when tortured—and she loved his sense of humor.” End quote.

The President Shop was probably the last novel I read. It emerged from a long thought process.

VESNA MARIĆ: You know, we just know Yugoslavia now as this country that sort of fell apart and whatever, but there were so many incredible things in and also so many contradictions.

And now we’re living in this sort of neoliberal capitalist, global society. You know, it’s really hard to look back at like communist or socialist countries. You know, you’re labeled nostalgic, but there’s really no kind of what I consider kind of reasonable assessment of what was good about those places.

Basically, how do we look at history? And what does any of it really mean, when we try to kind of understand both war and also kind of what, what is a good life? What does it mean to have collective society rather than an individualistic society?

So I was trying to examine all those things. And to really kind of talk about this place that I thought I had a lot of really special things about it, really positive and interesting things about it. That was an experiment almost, in that sort of world that spanned between the sort of political east and west.

PETER KORCHNAK: “Remembering, reminiscing, conjuring up, reviving is also what we, the former Yugoslavs, do; our lives, as we knew them, were yanked away from us in such a swift, violent way, we are left to turn up the soil of our memory, hoping to make some sense of ourselves through what we find,” writes Marić in Granta.

VESNA MARIĆ: So I really kind of wanted to bring up these parts of Yugoslav history that are just forgotten, but I think a really valuable: the way that society was set up, the way it was built through these voluntary movements. So but I didn’t want to do it in a way that was like, the beautiful song to Yugoslavia I didn’t want to sort of make it like this ridiculous sort of ode because obviously, it wasn’t. It was a real place with its real issue and….

So I wanted to portray it through a fictional family, really, it’s not autobiographical in any way at all. There are elements maybe of some things I’ve been told or whatever, but it’s very much invented. And I wanted to bring all those things in that were real issues in Yugoslavia and still remain in that traditional society, such as, you know, thinking differently, being gay, looking bit different, going to the army, not wanting to comply with all those things that were imposed on people in this collective—so the challenges of, of the collective versus the challenges of the individual.

PETER KORCHNAK: Marić again: “[L]ike every other Yugoslav, I have had to examine the veracity of my memory, of that memory. I had to look at which part of that country, that ideal, was true and good, and what was oppressive and false. And although there are varied, often opposing versions of the same historical event, one thing has persisted throughout my readings, analysis and conversations on the subject: that Yugoslavia’s ending in bloodshed cannot be its only legacy, the only lesson we take away from its existence.”

VESNA MARIĆ: And then there’s this controversial memory of Yugoslavia which a lot of people of course of the older generation, at least in Bosnia, right, but there is a lot of older people of course who lived much better and they remember that.

But then you have the new generations who often of course don’t remember it and have been told terrible things about it. It’s even not taught about at schools so there’s this kind of almost gap in the knowledge, you know, filled with this sort of darkness.

So the only thing that’s there is the past because there’s very little sort of movement in the present. People are emigrating still and leaving I mean, I don’t want to paint such a massively bleak picture, that really is what it is in terms of life.

PETER KORCHNAK: “The President, the founder of the Nation, is an old man now, but his young and unifying spirit stands steadfastly at the heart of [the] novel,” says the official description of the book. “Ruben and Rosa…met as partisans, fighting to forge the Nation in the crucible of conflict. But even though their pride shines as brightly as the gilded bust of the President, the younger generation has questioned whether the Nation really has its citizens best interests in mind. Ruben’s brother is actively working to avoid mandatory military service as he pines away for another man, and Ruben and Rosa’s daughter Mona is too busy adjusting to womanhood to get caught up in state-mandated nostalgia. [And] an elderly uncle claims to have invented a machine to see into the future, which he stores in the basement of the family’s apartment building. But there is no telling what the future really holds in store as the beliefs of the past slowly start to crumble.”

VESNA MARIĆ: I felt and I still actually feel very, very much that the principles or the ideals of Yugoslavia were human ideals, they weren’t dogmatic, particularly, I don’t think. I’m sure other people would disagree with me, free to disagree. But this is how I felt, you know that sort of not caring if somebody is whatever nationality, i.e. having a humanistic approach to your fellow people was, was good. And I saw it.

PETER KORCHNAK: “The memory of Yugoslavia can teach the countries of the liberal West a crucial lesson in the 21st century,” continues Marić in Granta, “…that noble ideals – be they of socialist brotherhood and unity, or of democracy – are easily proclaimed in theory, but even more easily betrayed in practice. Yugoslavia is an urgent example of how socially progressive potential is wasted when it is laid upon the old structures of supremacist, patriarchal domination.”

VESNA MARIĆ: Members of my family who were really mixed, so called, you know, we didn’t really talk about that, it wasn’t something that I was aware of until the time came that everyone had to be aware of these things. But, you know, our traditions were always coexisting. We had coexisted for hundreds and hundreds of years. These are cultures that have one culture with different traditions that work associated with a particular religion.

My grandmother, on my mother’s side, who was Catholic, always had a picture of Tito and a picture of Jesus together, you know, so… I didn’t feel there was any contradiction in what I had been taught to believe as a child and what I still believe as human beings. So you know, I may not believe that Tito is like the most incredible faultless person like we were taught, those things, of course, you know, I don’t have a bad view of him. But you know, those things are much more complex as you grow up. But, you know, those values are still the same. So I didn’t doubt those ever, despite the war. In fact, the war made me think that, and I saw that the people who still believed in the kind of unity, did much better things shall I say, helped each other out. didn’t necessarily kill other people. To me, it was almost a confirmation of those values.

You know, Yugoslavia was really glued by this kind of unity that really needed to be maintained.

PETER KORCHNAK: Though they go unnamed, the city in the book is obviously Mostar and the country Yugoslavia.

VESNA MARIĆ: I didn’t name anything in the book, because I didn’t actually want it to be a subgenre dealing with Yugoslav history, because although there are quite a lot of historical details that I researched and put in there—because they’re great, you know, I didn’t need to invent anything, reality is quite interesting in those ways—I am not interested in sorting through historical detail in that way to prove this or that. I was really interested in the concepts behind ideology, behind a common cause, and what can be done, when there’s a common cause, and people unite behind it positively or negatively? And so I was really much more interested in the concepts behind these things, because I believe that’s what it’s all about—not who’s Croat, what happened in
1945 in Jajce or whatever. If people find these things interesting, of course, they’re out there to be read about, I’m just not that kind of thinker.

PETER KORCHNAK: So ironically, while Yugoslavia is uniquely, in terms of regional literature, and very prominently present as both a setting and plot device of sorts, the name itself makes no appearance.

VESNA MARIĆ: Obviously, once you know about the history, and you know about the country, it’s impossible not to read it in that way. But people who, who know nothing about Yugoslavia have also read it, and it’s like, really great to see the different responses because, well, it just sort of works. I think people read it almost like an allegorical kind of a story, which is also what I would wanted, how I you know, I’d like it to work on all these levels, so that people can read it not knowing anything about the history of the country. Because I hope that I managed to bring across those tensions between the different family members and the society around the world around regardless of where they are.

No matter where we live, we come across those sorts of things, the myths, whether they’re Christian myths or democratic myths, or whatever.

PETER KORCHNAK: There was also a pragmatic reason for omitting to name names.

VESNA MARIĆ: One of the problems, I think, is that–and it happened with Bluebird in some places, too—is that it sort of becomes regionalized again, like Balkan history or Eastern European history. And that’s sort of just can kill a book, you know, because then it just sort of becomes this like, niche crowd that wants to read about this stuff. And I would love to get away from that. It would be great if the wider world was interested in things that aren’t as familiar to them in that sort of immediate sense. But that speak to that sort of universal aspect.


PETER KORCHNAK: Though novels by Sandorf Passage’s authors differ in the topics and themes they cover, Poole the publisher sees some common threads running through their stories.

BUZZ POOLE: The way these authors come at these commonalities, come with them very differently, because then at the end of the day, you you have this idea of Yugoslavia, of course, but then within it, you have these separate national identities that, you know, have now, you know, true borders drawn around them.

PETER KORCHNAK: There’s another theme that stands out, weaving through the works published by Sandorf Passage but also others.

BUZZ POOLE: This idea of, kind of waking up one day and you live in one country, you live in this place, and then the next day, it’s a different country or it goes by a different name and this fluidity of borders and of national identity and ethnic identity, and how it can change, you know, that’s a through line in all of this work. Because all of these authors, you know, from the former Yugoslavia have dealt with this in one way or another. They had no choice in that. And it was just something that was was thrust upon them. And it’s clearly has these lasting ramifications in terms of self identity, family identity, and national and ethnic identity.

We published at the very end of last year, In Elvis’s Room, a Slovenian book—

PETER KORCHNAK: —by Sebastian Pregelj—

BUZZ POOLE: On the surface, it’s a coming of age novel. It starts with Jan as this only child who’s growing up in the 80s. And life is good, he’s got loving family life, he plays with Star Wars action figures and, you know, runs around town and, you know, gets into boyish trouble, like anyone and you know, starts as he gets older is interested in girls and all this kind of, you know, normal stuff, regular stuff I should say.

And then all of a sudden, he’s he’s drafted into the army and he’s fighting for the Yugoslav army. And then he comes back and the war is over. And he’s living in, you know, Slovenia is its, you know, is on its track for independence. And that’s a really touching, intimate book. But that is, you know, at its core, what, what is haunting Jan, as he gets older is, you know, who, where am I really from? How do we nail that down?

And that is certainly a through line in all of this work, I think it’s fair to say.

There’s no shortage of war-related plots, or, you know, storylines in a lot of these books, it does go beyond that.

PETER KORCHNAK: Sandorf Passage books are available for purchase at, at your local independent bookstore (they can order books for you if you don’t find what you’re looking for on the shelf) as well as, the least preferred route, a number of online outlets.

In the next year, Sandorf Passage will publish a number of quality works by ex-YU authors.

BUZZ POOLE: We are publishing Water Spiderweb by Nada Gašić, which is a sprawling, multigenerational novel that starts with a historic flood of the Sava River in 1964, which wiped out and you know, basically an entire neighborhood of working class neighborhood of the city of Zagreb, and from there kind of unspools into this literary noir around a murder. You’re intentionally kept in the dark about what has happened, but a boy named David has seen something he shouldn’t have and he ends up in the hospital as the family kind of splinters apart around it and trying to hold themselves together.

Nada Gašić was an academic has been an academic for the most of her life. She first, her first novel came out, she’s in her 50s, if not even 60, and this book, Water Spiderweb, is now thought of as is one of these great love letters to Zagreb. There’re these scenes of kind of eavesdropping on people on the trams as a zip around town, all the festivities that go around with All Saints Day and the visiting of the family graves and it’s about Zagreb as its kind of own character.

Another book I’m really excited about, which is actually quite different in terms of you know, the war themes that that are a big part of so much of this work, is Martina Vidać’s Bedbugs, which Elena Bursać is is in the process of translating for us. It was the winner of the EU Prize for Fiction last year. And it’s about a woman who is losing her mind, has lost her job, has lost her relationships gone south. And she thinks she has bedbugs which she may or may not have in her apartment in Zagreb. But this is I think of a really contemporary novel, you know, very 21st century, very strong, independent female voice that is really not at all concerned about the war. You know, it’s very much a smartphone novel. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive way at all, but but in a way that it’s really, you know, it’s about me, it’s very much about the narrator and her, you know, place in the world and it’s something really fresh. It makes a lot of sense to me that one that that EU Fiction Prize.

PETER KORCHNAK: As foreshadowed in the previous episode, Maša Kolanović’s work will finally see the light of English translation as well.

BUZZ POOLE: Underground Barbie is happening next year as well.

PETER KORCHNAK: Kolanović talked on this podcast about the 1980s, in Episode 36.

Sloboština Barbie, named after a neighborhood in Novi or New Zagreb, is about a girl who grows up there in the 80s only for her childhood to be cut short by the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the war in Croatia.

In the basement air raid shelter she plays with her collection of Barbies, mirroring in the stories she tells the actual realities on the ground. The book’s translator, Ena Selimović, wrote that “in the Barbie world underground, the children hold presidential elections, host a refugee ball with “disgusting” dolls lesser than [the] “genuine” Barbie, puzzle over the arrival of Black “Tropical Barbie,” discover a mass grave of Ken’s headless mistresses, and more.”

BUZZ POOLE: I only wish we could have gotten it out this year with— last year with all the Barbie… Yeah, I think anything with Barbie on it will will be okay.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Balkan Blues” by Sticky Keys]

PETER KORCHNAK: As I talked to my guests in the past two episodes about post-Yugoslav literature, my curiosity got sparked. Could I possibly read fiction again? Only one way to find out, so I went to a local library and checked out a bunch of books. I’m starting with The Museum of Unconditional Surrender by Dubravka Ugrešić, one of my favorite authors from the former Yugoslavia. The 1996 postmodern novel translated by Celia Hawkesworth is a semi-autobiographical account of a life of an ex-Yugoslav in exile. And just a few pages in, this wonderful passage:


“People who read a lot of fiction tend to have better cognitive skills, study finds,” goes the headline of a recent article at PsyPost. Quote, “New research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General suggests reading fiction offers small but meaningful cognitive benefits, particularly for verbal skills, empathy, and the ability to understand others’ perspectives.” End quote. So it’s not just entertainment. If I read novels from here on out, I’m doing a good thing, for myself and for humanity.

Either way, whether it’s real or not, that is whether the events described have actually occurred or not, a story is a story. Even in reporting or discussing real-life events, what’s told about them is but a subjective interpretation and hence, in a way invented. As David Shields writes in Reality Hunger, “Anything processed by memory is fiction.” So anything processed by other people’s memories and then regurgitated or reported on the page (or on a podcast), is fiction to another degree. To remember Yugoslavia is to conjure made up stories, and to tell those stories is yet another story layered upon them. The story is in the telling.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia: A surprise, but one that will make perfect sense once you hear it.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening—and reading. Find additional information, sources, embeds, links, and the transcript of this episode at

All guests’ opinions expressed are solely their own; unless otherwise noted they do not express, reflect, or represent the views or opinions of any third party, including myself.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. The track “Balkan Blues” courtesy of StickyKeys AKA Iva Janković. Check them out and inquire about gigs and commissions on Soundcloud.

The track “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons.

I am Peter Korchňak.

The End

1 thoughts on “Found in Translation”

  1. Marie Scatena

    These last two podcasts, are to my mind, genius. So many lessons for life, provocative questions and references to and about history and memory that made me smile. Thank you Peter.

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