Native Speakers of Slovene and Their Translation of Collocations from Slovene into English: A Slovene-English Empirical Study
The article deals with collocations in general and then concentrates on contrastive problems encountered by native speakers of Slovene when encoding. The emphasis is on a study conducted to find out what types of mistakes are made in the field of collocations when native speakers of Slovene translate from Slovene into English. The study was carried out among students of English who had been given instructions about the collocational restrictions prior to the task. An analysis of mistakes is presented together with the frequency of a specific type of mistake that appeared in the study. The emphasis of the study is on lexical collocations, although grammatical collocations are not entirely ignored. The last part of the article gives possible reasons for the mistakes in the students' translations and provides a brief description of the treatment of collocations in the most comprehensive Slovene-English dictionary available.
Collocations have been a popular topic in linguistics. Discussions concerning the monolingual aspect as well as those dealing with bilingual problems are so numerous that it is impossible to present here even a partial survey of articles, monographs, and other reference books. In this article, I am concerned not so much with the treatment of collocations in English as with problems connected with the correct use of collocations and the mistakes made by non-native speakers when encoding. The language pair under discussion is Slovene and English, but the conclusions may also be applicable to any other language pair.
Several empirical studies have been conducted so far, their aim being to find out whether non-native speakers have problems with decoding or encoding collocations (cf. Biskup 1992), or to establish to what extent dictionaries, be it monolingual or bilingual, general or specialized, help dictionary users to understand or actively use collocations (cf. Atkins and Varantola 1998; Tono 2001).
Collocations are phraseologically bound units, thus they are classified as a subgroup of set phrases (cf. Gläser 1988; Howarth 1996; Mel'čuk 1998). Therefore they have to be defined relative to set phrases that are not collocations. Collocations are associations of two or more lexemes (or roots) recognized in and defined by their occurrence in a specific range of grammatical constructions. HEAV- + RAIN is one such abstract composite, realized in the patterns heavy rain and rain heavily (Mitchell 1971). Though transparent and (usually) lexically variable (cf. light rain, a heavy shower), they are characterized by arbitrary limitation of choice at one or more points, as in light exercise vs. ?heavy exercise (Cowie 1981). Collocations are to be distinguished from 'free' or 'open' combinations such as drink one's tea or dismiss an employee. It is sometimes very difficult to distinguish collocations from free combinations, one possible criterion being that free combinations are structured on the basis of grammar (e.g. She is a teacher/doctor/girl ...), whereas collocations are not (e.g. a stubborn stain).
According to Benson, Benson and Ilson, the compilers of the BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations (a revised edition published in 1997, the first edition being the BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English published in 1986), there are many fixed, identifiable, non-idiomatic phrases and constructions that are called recurrent combinations, fixed combinations or collocations. In a monolingual context, collocations are recognized on the basis of recurrence in a large number of texts, which can only be done with the help of large corpora of texts. This is now made possible by the use of powerful computers.
Collocations fall into two groups: lexical and grammatical collocations. The basic difference between these is structural. Lexical collocations consist of two equal words (possible combinations include nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs),1 whereas grammatical collocations are composed of a dominant word (noun, verb, adjective) and a dependent word (preposition or a grammatical structure).2 This empirical study tested production only, since several other studies (cf. Biskup 1992) have proved that comprehension does not present a problem for L2 learners, the reason being that the meaning of the collocation can be inferred from the meaning of its constituent elements.
My test focused primarily on lexical collocations. The examples included in the test comprised 96 collocations, five of these being grammatical collocations proper (e.g. tantamount to + gerund, angry at/with); two examples tested both lexical and grammatical collocations (e.g. to my deep/profound/great satisfaction, enter a subscription to - both examples consist of a preposition, which is a grammatical element, and adjective + noun or verb + noun combinations, which are lexical elements), and 86 collocations were lexical collocations with different structures.
Participants: The study included 87 second- and third-year students of English (Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana).
Level: Theoretically speaking, the students' background knowledge should be the same, since they had all fulfilled the requirements necessary to enrol on the course and they had all passed the required exams in the first and second years of study.
Test: The test given to the students consisted of collocations in context (full sentences; 38 examples) or collocations in isolation (58 examples).
Information provided to complete the task: First of all students were theoretically acquainted with collocations (definition, types of collocations, structure of collocations). Then they received their worksheets and were asked to translate the examples at home. At the same time they were encouraged to use the dictionaries and were very well aware of which language element was being tested.
On the basis of the students' translations of L1 examples, several types of mistakes can be observed.
Lexical collocations consist of two basic elements: the base or the key word and the collocator. Analysis of translations obtained from the students shows that both elements are equally problematic, the result being that the mistakes must be classified accordingly. Basically the mistakes that appear in the students’ translations are of three types: mistakes related to the collocator, those related to the base or those involving misinterpretation of the entire collocation. Consequently, the following classification of mistakes can be made:
1) Collocator: a. semantically unsuitable word b. semantically suitable word which does not collocate with the base, but with another word c. literal translation of the Slovene word d. semantically suitable word which is used incorrectly 2) Base a. incorrect word b. correct word incorrectly used 3) correct collocation which is semantically unsuitable 4) literal translation of the entire collocation 5) semantically unsuitable translation of the whole sentence/collocation (the meaning in L1 does not correspond to the meaning in L2)
On closer examination of the first type of mistake, mentioned under 1a above (i.e. semantically unsuitable word used as a collocator), it can be established that a great number of collocations where mistakes of this type were made belong to the collocations with the pattern verb + noun. In these combinations the verb has very little meaning, since most of the meaning is conveyed by the noun. This is an important group of collocations containing the so-called delexical verbs.3 Here are a few examples taken from my empirical study:
narediti domačo nalogo - *make one's homework instead of do one's homework4
prikloniti se - *do one's bow instead of take one's/a bow
narediti napako - *do a mistake instead of make a mistake
imeti koncert - *have a concert instead of give/stage/hold a concert (this mistake could also be classified as being a direct translation from Slovene, since the verb imeti is literally translated into English by have)
imeti avtorske pravice - *grant/register a copyright instead of hold/claim/own/have a copyright.
Besides this group of collocations, numerous other examples can be listed here as well:
a) verb (other than a delexical verb) performing the function of the collocator in the collocation of the type verb + noun:
kandidirati več dobrih kandidatov - *adopt or write in several good candidates instead of put up or put forward or nominate several good candidates
izvajati novo politiko - *play/execute/lead a new policy instead of pursue/follow/adopt/implement or adhere to or carry out a new policy
izstopiti iz vlaka - *get down from the train instead of get off the train
b) adjective performing the function of the collocator in the collocation of the type adjective + noun:
lepe pozdrave - *hot/nice regards instead of best/kind/warm regards
velika napaka - *large mistake instead of big/bad/glaring mistake
gost promet - *high traffic instead of heavy/dense traffic
hudo pomanjkanje - *bad shortage instead of severe scarcity or acute/severe shortage
c) adverb performing the function of the collocator in the collocation of the type adverb + adjective:
izredno provokativen - *strongly provocative instead of highly provocative
zelo izobražen - >*very educated instead of highly educated
d) adverb performing the function of the collocator in the Slovene collocation of the type adverb + verb:
burno razpravljati - *have a heated conversation (note the incorrect use of the noun conversation in this context) instead of argue heatedly/vehemently/passionately or arouse/provoke or stir up an animated/brisk/heated/lively/spirited discussion or debate heatedly/hotly/tempestuously
burno razpravljati - *discuss spiritedly instead of argue heatedly/vehemently/passionately
visoko ceniti - *think a great deal of instead of appreciate sincerely/greatly/keenly/deeply
Note that it is often possible to translate a Slovene collocation of the type adverb + verb in two different ways. One is to preserve the Slovene structure in English, as well (e.g. ostro zaviti turn sharply/abruptly) and the other one is to use the structure verb + adjective + noun in English (e.g. make a sharp turn/bend).
The second type of mistake is listed above under 1b (i.e. semantically suitable word used as the collocator which does not collocate with the base, but with another word). Here two subgroups can be established:
a) the collocator that is used incorrectly may collocate with another base that is semantically related to the base used by the student. Examples include:
lepe pozdrave - *best greetings the correct collocation in English being best regards
veslati kanu - *row a canoe the correct collocation in English being paddle a canoe (but: veslati čoln - row a boat)
resna skrb - *grave care the correct collocation in English being grave concern
b) the collocator that is used incorrectly may collocate with another base that is semantically unrelated to the base used by the student, but where in Slovene, the same word with the same meaning collocates with two different bases. Examples include:
kos prtljage - *article of luggage instead of piece/item of luggage but
kos obleke - article of clothing (besides piece/item of clothing)
Very often the collocator is literally translated from Slovene (listed above under 1c). Literal translation is one of the most common pitfalls awaiting non-native speakers when they translate collocations from L1 into L2.5 The meaning of collocations is transparent, as I have already mentioned; a non-native speaker, therefore, is often not even aware of the fact that a word combination in L1 must be translated with an appropriate word combination in L2. Examples include:
vstopiti na vlak - *enter the train instead of board or get on the train
častna diploma - *honours/honour degree or *honourable diploma or *the diploma of honour instead of honorary degree
brezupno zasvojen - *desperately addicted instead of chronically/hopelessly addicted
izboljšati rekord - *improve a record instead of beat/break/better/surpass a record
A relatively small number of mistakes, though still worth mentioning, involves the incorrect use of an otherwise suitable word (listed above under 1d). Examples include:
izstopiti iz vlaka *alight the train instead of alight from the train or get off the train (the verb alight is an intransitive verb and must be followed by the preposition from)
popolnoma zmrznjen - *hard frozen instead of frozen/solid hard (the word order in English is fixed, i.e. adjective + adverb, whereas in Slovene it is vice versa, i.e. adverb + adjective, which explains the mistake)
As far as the base is concerned, the analysis of mistakes shows two subgroups. The first listed above under 2a refers to the use of an incorrect word, for example:
povzročiti nasprotovanje - cause *conflicts instead of cause antagonism/opposition (cause conflict is an acceptable collocation from the point of view of English, but semantically it is not suitable as a translational equivalent of the Slovene povzročiti nasprotovanje)
pristati na nižjo plačo - accept a cut in the *wage instead of accept a cut in salary (again the use of two nouns in English for one noun in Slovene causes problems for native speakers of Slovene, because they have to differentiate between wage which is received on a weekly basis and salary which is received on a monthly basis).
popolnoma kvalificiran - fully *competent or perfectly *eligible instead of eminently/fully/highly qualified
(vse, kar je) v človeški moči - (everything) in *manpower instead of (everything that is) humanly possible
izredno zanimiv - extremely *startling or very *exciting instead of highly/very/extremely interesting
The next type of mistake also refers to the base. In this case the selected word is correct but is used incorrectly (listed above under 2b). For example:
povzročiti nasprotovanje - cause *oppositions (in this sense, the noun opposition is a singular uncountable noun; therefore it cannot be used in the plural)
Very often students use a word combination which can be classified as a collocation but whose meaning does not correspond to that in the source language (listed above under 3). This type of mistake can be attributed to the fact that students were aware of their task, but paid scant attention to the appropriate semantic meaning. They may have consulted dictionaries, but they seem to have failed to recognize the right meaning of a certain collocation. Examples include:
izdati knjigo - edit a book (= urediti knjigo) instead of bring out or publish or put out or issue a book
Igralec se je priklonil. - The actor made a bow instead of The actor took his/a bow (= the collocation make a bow implies 'to bend the head or body (as a greeting)', and is translated into Slovene by means of the same verb as take a bow, but here the context must be taken into consideration in order to be able to use the appropriate collocation)
častna diploma - honours degree instead of honorary degree (the noun honours is often used as an adjective implying a university course that is of a higher level than a basic course, and in the US it is also used to describe a class in school which is at a higher level than other classes)
dati pameten odgovor - give/provide a satisfactory answer or give/provide an appropriate answer instead of give/provide an intelligent/wise/glib answer
burno protestirati - object violently instead of protest vigorously/strongly
zadovoljiti potrebo - satisfy a want instead of fill/satisfy/meet/fulfil a need
A direct translation of the entire collocation seems to be tempting (type of mistake listed above under 4) and is comparable to the type of mistake (listed above under 1c) where only one part of the collocation, namely the collocator, is literally translated. Examples include:
Prepir je naredil konec najinemu prijateljstvu. - The argument *made an end to our friendship. instead of The argument ended/destroyed or broke up or put an end to or made an end of our friendship.
sveže pleskano (used as a sign) - *freshly painted or fresh paint instead of wet paint
The last type of mistake (listed above under 5) that could be observed in students’ translations in connection with lexical collocations is a semantically inappropriate translation of the entire collocation or sentence. The reason for this type of mistake can be that the students misinterpreted the meaning of the collocation/sentence in L1, either because they did not read the collocation/sentence in L1 carefully or they wanted to simplify, and so translated the collocation/sentence in a denser form, thereby omitting some essential items. For example:
Naša stranka je kandidirala več dobrih kandidatov. - Our party has put up as candidates a number of good people. instead of Our party put up or put forward or nominated several good candidates.
visoko ceniti - *think a great deal of sth instead of think highly of
gola slučajnost - *the purest accident instead of pure/sheer chance
imeti avtorske pravice - *establish authorship instead of hold/claim/own/have a copyright
približna ocena - an approximate price instead of a rough estimate (this mistake is probably due to the fact that the student mistook the noun cena, which is 'price' in English, for ocena, which is 'estimate' in English).
Frequency of mistakes
Based on an analysis of the translations, it is clear that some mistakes appear more often than others. One would expect that literal translations would be by far the most frequent type of mistake, but the results show that the majority of lexical collocations in this study were not translated word for word. This is probably due to the fact that the students were aware of the task they were supposed to complete. The following is the list of mistakes in order of frequency of occurrence in the students’ translations (the numbers given in brackets refer to the number of mistakes of a certain type found in the translations):
As has been established, only five collocations belong to the group of grammatical collocations proper, while two examples tested both lexical and grammatical collocations. Grammatical collocations are less problematic because they are more predictable than lexical ones, but mistakes do occur with grammatical collocations as well. The mistakes that appeared in the students' translations can be classified in the following way:
1) the use of an incorrect preposition; e.g.
Ostati tiho je bilo enako kot privoliti. - Remaining silent was tantamount *of giving consent. instead of Remaining silent was tantamount to giving consent. (note that the students were asked to use the adjective tantamount in order to test if they knew how to use it correctly, or if they did not know the adjective whether they could find the appropriate piece of information in the dictionary; the results, however, were not at all encouraging)
biti jezen na koga - be angry *against sb instead of be angry/mad at/with sb
naš veleposlanik v Rimu - our ambassador *in Rome instead of our ambassador to Rome
na moje veliko zadovoljstvo - *on/for my great satisfaction instead of to my deep satisfaction
naročiti se na - subscribe *for instead of subscribe to
2) the use of an incorrect grammatical structure; e.g.
Dovolj so stari, da lahko volijo. - They are eligible voting. instead of They are eligible to vote. (note that the students were asked to use the adjective eligible, so their task was to find out which grammatical structure follows this particular adjective)
naročiti se na - *subscribe a paper instead of subscribe to (note that students obviously considered it necessary to add the noun paper, although it was not mentioned in the L1 example)
biti pesimističen glede svojih obetov - be pessimistic as for your promises instead of be pessimistic about/at/over your prospects/promises
Ostati tiho je bilo enako kot privoliti. - Remaining silent was tantamount to agree. instead of Remaining silent was tantamount to agreeing. (Obviously, the students mistook the preposition to for the particle denoting the infinitive.)
Frequency of mistakes
The following is the list of mistakes in order of frequency of occurrence in the students’ translations (the numbers given in brackets refer to the number of mistakes found in the translations):
In order to be able to obtain more relevant results, it would be necessary to include more examples containing grammatical collocations, but my initial hypothesis was that grammatical collocations are less problematic than their lexical counterparts. This was proved by the fact that the number of variant translations provided by students was much greater in the translations of lexical collocations than in the translations of grammatical collocations. In grammatical collocations the types of mistakes are not as varied as those in lexical collocations, because in the majority of cases the mistakes refer to one element (i.e. to the use of the so-called dependent word), whereas in lexical collocations both the base and the collocator pose problems for non-native speakers.
The students were acquainted with collocations theoretically, but did the actual translation at home, so they could make use of all the available dictionaries; despite that they made numerous mistakes. The reasons can be attributed to several factors.
Collocations are insufficiently included in the existing Slovensko-angleški slovar (Slovene-English Dictionary, second edition, Grad/Leeming 1990, hereafter referred to as SAS2); this is, however, the dictionary most often used by native speakers of Slovene. It is necessary to mention that the above-mentioned dictionary is the most comprehensive bilingual dictionary for encoding, but unfortunately it is much older than the publication date suggests. Its origins go back to 1982 when this dictionary was first published. In 1990 Henry Leeming revised it, but the revision had no substantial effect on either macrostructure or microstructure. It must be admitted that the word list remained unchanged; only some of the most glaring mistakes concerning the translational equivalents of entry words or examples of use were corrected. This dictionary lacks examples of use, register labels, grammatical information, and information concerning collocational restrictions necessary for a non-native speaker when encoding. However, it is still the only bilingual dictionary we can rely upon. To illustrate some of these points some examples taken from the SAS2 follow.
Our empirical study included the collocation izdati knjigo - to bring out or to publish or to put out or to issue a book. Students, however, chose the inappropriate verb to edit in their translations. The question is why so many of them chose this particular verb. If we have a look at SAS2, we can easily explain the mistake:
izdati ... (knjigo itd.) to edit, to publish, to issue, to bring out ... (ibid: 178)
Besides listing appropriate translational equivalents in connection with the noun knjiga 'book', it also includes the verb 'to edit', which is incorrect in this sense. Since 'to edit' is the translational equivalent that is listed first, we can presuppose that the majority of dictionary users (even in our case where the test subjects were students of English) tend to select the first translational equivalent offered in a dictionary. This mistake can also be attributed to the fact that a general dictionary user cannot tell the difference between the semantic meaning of the verb urediti/izdati or the English equivalents edit/publish, but this does not justify the inclusion of an incorrect translational equivalent in a dictionary.
The next example also included in our study was the collocation izvajati novo politiko - to pursue or to follow or to adhere to or to adopt or to carry out or to implement fresh policies or a new policy.
izvajati to perform; to carry out; to execute; to implement ... (SAS2: 192)
In this case dictionary users do not get much help concerning the collocational restrictions; they need, therefore, to consult either a general monolingual dictionary or a specialized dictionary of collocations, because all the above-mentioned verbs are appropriate translational equivalents for the Slovene verb izvajati, but use depends on context.
The collocation izstopiti iz vlaka - get off the train was often wrongly translated as 'alight the train'. However, SAS2 is not to be blamed for this mistake. Under the entry for the verb izstopiti, it correctly lists several possible translational equivalents and also provides an example translated by the verb 'to alight'.
to get out, to step out; to alight; to retire from, to withdraw from; to secede; (iz stranke) to quit, to leave, A to bolt; (iz šole) to leave; (iz društva) to resign from; izstopiti iz članstva to resign from membership; izstopiti iz Cerkve to leave (ali to abandon) a Church; ljudje so neprestano vstopali in izstopali people kept going in and out; reka je izstopila the river broke its banks; izstopiti iz vlaka to alight from a train ... (ibid: 190)
However, the structure of this dictionary entry is quite strange. It starts by listing translational equivalents without any further information concerning their use in English apart from some sense discriminators (e.g. iz stranke 'from a party', iz šole 'from school', iz društva 'from an association'). In the second part some examples are provided in a haphazard fashion (neither alphabetical order nor any semantic connections are taken into consideration). Many a student was probably acquainted with the semantic meaning of the verb to alight but, obviously, not with its correct use, let alone register.
The students often used the incorrect preposition in their translation of the collocation uvrstiti se v finale 'qualify for the final' or 'get through to the final'. The preposition they used in the collocation 'get through to the final' was into. This mistake is due to the inappropriate translation of the example of use in SAS2:
finale ... priti v finale šport to get into the final (ibid: 118)
The second reason for the mistakes made by non-native speakers when encoding is that monolingual dictionaries for non-native speakers include collocations to a certain extent, but these dictionaries are intended for foreign users regardless of their mother tongue. They may therefore include collocations that are necessary for native speakers of French, Italian or German, but are not needed by native speakers of Slovene (since in Slovene the collocation is the same as in English, the result being that the collocation in English is predictable for native speakers of Slovene). They may, on the other hand, not include collocations that native speakers of Slovene would need (i.e. collocations that are not the same as collocations in Slovene and are therefore not predictable for native speakers of Slovene).
In the latest editions of some monolingual learner's dictionaries (OALD6,6 COBUILD3,7 LDOCE3,8 CIDE,9 MED10) some collocations (but certainly not all) are printed in bold within the examples, but this is a relatively recent practice. One advantage of such a treatment of collocations is that the dictionary user immediately notices them, the result being that there is a greater chance of using the collocation correctly. If collocations are not clearly marked within the example of use, many a dictionary user does not even notice that the example contains a certain word combination (e.g. verb + noun or adjective + noun). It is, of course, of the utmost importance to pay special attention to the collocations that differ from their equivalent in the target language that is the user's L2.
Apart from general dictionaries, non-native speakers can also make use of specialized dictionaries of collocations (e.g BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations, Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English, LTP Dictionary of Selected Collocations). We should also be aware of the fact that the dictionaries of collocations are incomplete, since there are many collocations that exist in any language but are not included even in specialized dictionaries.
Another possible reason can simply be that the students cannot use the existing dictionaries in such a way as to obtain all the information they include. Numerous studies have been carried out so far (mostly in the 1980s and 1990s) to find out how dictionary users use dictionaries (cf. Béjoint 1981; Benson 1990; Atkins and Varantola 1998; Dolezal and McCreary 1999; Béjoint 2000; Tono 2001; Nesi and Hill 2002). Almost all studies prove that not all the information found in a dictionary is exploited by the dictionary user. The same holds true of collocations. It should also be stressed that the students do not (entirely) understand the contrastive problems of collocability, which can also be a possible reason for numerous mistakes. If they were aware of the fact that collocations are a real problem when using a foreign language, they would probably be more careful and check them not only in a bilingual dictionary but also in general as well as specialized monolingual dictionaries that are much more comprehensive and reliable than the SAS2 they so often use.
This empirical study has attempted to describe the problems faced by native speakers of Slovene when encoding. The results suggest that collocations are quite tricky for non-native speakers even if they are aware of them (at least theoretically). I believe that collocations should be systematically taught at school. Additionally students should also be acquainted with different types of monolingual dictionaries and with the way they include and treat collocations. Such frequency of mistakes can be attributed to the fact that in Slovenia students are not given any systematic teaching in and precise instruction for the use of dictionaries at school. The result is that a wealth of the information that each monolingual dictionary contains is, unfortunately, not made use of. As Tono (2001: 214) says, "dictionary reference skills involve highly complicated cognitive skills". He makes the further claim that “dictionary skills are problem-solving skills: users are trying to solve a particular linguistic conflict they have in understanding or producing a text, by consulting a dictionary”. Therefore, I believe teaching dictionary use in class should be introduced at a very early stage of learning a foreign language, but, of course, it should be adapted according to the age and level of knowledge of students. This would most certainly lead to a reduction in the number of lexical mistakes, since learning dictionary skills simultaneously implies learning about the most problematic areas of lexis (and to a certain degree grammar as well). At the same time this could also help improve a highly neglected area of bilingual lexicography in Slovenia.
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1 Examples of lexical collocations: do one's homework, abject poverty, densely populated.
2 Examples of grammatical collocations: angry at/with, in advance, ambassador to.
3 Compare Mel’čuk's (1998) classification of collocations where he refers to such verbs as "support or light" verbs; however the examples he lists include some verbs that are not listed among delexical verbs in grammar books, such as launch in launch an appeal or lay in lay siege; for a list of delexical verbs, see Sinclair 1990, Biber et al. 1999, Quirk et al. 1985.
4 An asterisk (*) indicates unacceptable use.
5 However, in my study this type of mistake does not occupy the first place as far as the frequency of a certain type of mistake is concerned (cf. Frequency of mistakes); this is probably due to the fact that students were warned that the subject matter being tested was collocations.
6 Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, Sixth edition; cf. Bibliography.
7 Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary, Third edition; cf. Bibliography.
8 Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, Third edition; cf. Bibliography.
9 Cambridge International Dictionary of English, First edition; cf. Bibliography.
10 Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, First edition; cf. Bibliography.
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