Thoughts Arising from an Endnote in Hofstadter’s Translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin”

I love the writings of Douglas Hofstadter. For many, many years I’ve been inspired, influenced, and provoked to unexpectedly deep thought by those writings. On many subjects, not least translation and mourning, I feel his words are essential reading. After seeing Catalyst Theatre‘s presentation of The Vancouver Arts Club production of Onegin at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre I was in equal measure startled into surprise and overcome with excited anticipation to learn that Hofstadter had translated Pushkin’s masterpiece. And somehow I had never noticed.

Translation is an endeavour of the human spirit that has fascinated me, haunted me, and obsessed me for most of my life, at least since the summer of 1967, riding the Montreal Metro and hearing the oddly understandable-to-a-five-year-old-anglo announcement of arrival at “Expo soixante-sept!” Translation, from Old English, Latin, and, more recently, Greek, is daily in my thoughts. I have at times helped friends and relatives puzzle out passages of Swahili and Nahuatl, because friends and relatives have the impression that I “just know stuff”. There is no experience quite like working out the expression of the human mind behind a text and helping another make a connection to that mind.

Translation is important to me, an ongoing challenge, mystery, and joy.

In his translation of Pushkin, Hofstadter is in near constant dialogue with another great mind, the Goliath-like figure of Vladimir Nabokov. Certainly, Hofstadter, a native English speaker, fluent in French, and with a journeyman knowledge of Russian, is a David figure in the face of such a brilliant native Russian-speaker and exquisite English wordsmith as Nabokov. The battle of these two, both giants to me, is almost as entertaining as the glittering work of Pushkin which has brought them — the three of them — together across time.

So much to consider, but I will focus on one (and maybe a moment with a second) endnote in Hofstadter’s glittering “novel versification” of Pushkin’s “novel in verse”, Eugene Onegin.

acacias and cherries: Nabokov, in his commentary, flies into a botanicolinguistic paroxysm here, heaping pages of bile and scorn on previous translators’ renderings of черёмуха (“a kind of cherry tree”, says my dictionary), and акация (“acacia”, says my dictionary), and going into all the profound and elusive cultural nuances of these words (and which, it is tacitly implied, are universal among Russians). After over four pages of ranting, Nabokov winds up revealing to his faithful readers what “the correct way” to translate these words is – namely, as “racemosas and pea trees”. Obviously, he would consider my dictionary-lookup methodology of “translation” of tree-names beneath contempt.

This gives a bit of the flavour of things. Nabokov is portrayed by Hofstadter as a bit of a nitpicking, pedantic, know-it-all prone to paroxysms. Meanwhile, Hofstadter has his own defensive paroxysms about his dictionary-lookup, neophyte translation method.

And I stand outside with no Russian and little botany and consider . . .

What does “Acacia” mean to me? Not much more than “ акация”, to be honest. Acacias are not a type of tree I’ve met with, by that name, in my half-century of life in the forests and groves of Canada (with a bit of time in the wooded mountains of Basilicata and Chiapas). But “pea-tree” does mean something to me. I have a hedge at the front of my house of a certain leguminous shrub introduced to my part of the world a century and more ago. It grows wild in the ravine just by my house and throughout the River Valley at Edmonton’s heart. We call it “Caragana”, but I know that it was introduced from Russia, and that it is sometimes called “Siberian Pea-Tree”. Whatever Nabokov’s native-speaker’s intuition (prejudice?) or Hofstadter’s dictionary might say, “pea-tree” is evocative for me of far more than is “acacia”. “Acacia” is descriptive of something outside my experience, however botanically accurate it might be. On the other hand, “pea-tree” evokes springtime walks in the Mill Creek Ravine, of the history of my city, of the long-faded Edmonton, Yukon, and Pacific Railway, whose rail-bed is now a very popular and unbearably beautiful caragana-lined foot- and cycle-path through our wonderful urban forest. And, of course, “pea-tree” evokes for me that hedge I sit behind as I write these words, that hedge of pea-tree that connects me, through Hofstadter and Nabokov to Pushkin and Onegin, Lensky, Tanya and the rest. “Acacia” doesn’t quite do that.

So. Which is the “better” translation? And why?

Well, acacia sensu lato, are members of Fabaceae, the same family to which the pea-tree belongs, and acacias and pea-trees certainly bear a superficial resemblance to each other in some cases. It is perhaps understandable that the term акация has been applied to the pea-tree. And even more understandable that lexicographers have lazily transliterated rather than actually defined the term in Hofstadter’s dictionary. Nabokov’s paroxysm is a democratic shout: “every bloody Russian peasant knows to point to the pea-tree at the edge of the road when some Akademician from Petersburg asks about акация.”

I guess what I’m saying is that both translations are “correct” depending on what is meant by “correct”. But I can’t help feeling that Nabokov is more correct for me (and for English speaking Russians, perhaps) than is Hofstadter, in this particular instance. Unusually for Hofstadter, he defends a dry, unfeeling, dictionary-narrow, non-evocative understanding of the life in акация: “The dictionary says ‘acacia’. If it’s good enough for the dictionary, it’s good enough for me!” Meanwhile, Nabokov: “the people point to the pea-tree. The people live with the pea tree. The people eat the pods of the pea tree. The pea tree is physically in communion with the people. Акация is pea-tree, and pea-tree is part of a living, human narrative.”

As much as I love Hofstadter’s writings on life, death, consciousness, language, and translation, I must side with Nabokov on this not insignificant point: “pea-tree” is a better translation of акация than is “acacia”. “Pea-tree” is life; “acacia” is marks on the page on a dictionary.

I suppose Hofstadter doesn’t help his case for me when in the immediately preceding note he completely mistranslates the very common Latin word “alia”, claiming that “sed alia tempora” means “But time has wings.” Hofstadter seems to have lost his way in his Latin dictionary, mistaking “ala”, “wing” for “alius”, “other”, and thereby strangely grafting wings onto a transitional “but, other times . . . .” (Perhaps Hofstadter is thinking of the common translation of “tempus fugit” as “time flies”, despite the more clearly accurate rendering “Time flees”.)

The looking-it-up-in-the-dictionary translator must be ever vigilant. Translation is not about dictionaries: translation is about communicating one human’s expression of human experience to another human with as much fidelity as possible for the translator. Solutions to translational problems are many and various, and different translators and readers will find different solutions effective for the same problem. That infinitely varied challenge is something that constantly brings me to states of wonder as both a reader and a translator. What a wonderful conversation across cultures and times translation is.

Such joyful frustration and happy satisfaction a word can bring!

It’s All Greek To Me


The other day an interesting blog post about astronomical information in a lovely piece by the Ancient Greek poet Sappho came up in my twitter feed. After reading the translations in that post, I said to a friend, “I really should sit down and learn Greek so I can really read Sappho’s poetry. Catullus is at his best when he’s translating her.”  The next morning I sat down for a few hours with my old copy of C. A. E. Luschnig’s An Introduction to Ancient Greek, a long-ago gift from a friend who felt “Old Norse will have to wait!” as she wrote inside the cover.  I don’t think I’ve learned Old Norse yet.

That afternoon I ran to The Edmonton Bookstore, one of a few fine second-hand booksellers in town, hoping that in their collection of Loeb Classical Library books there would be a copy of Sappho’s poems. Sure I’d be able to find texts online, but a real book is always better.  Fortunately, there was one copy of Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus on the shelf for me to grab and clutch to my book-loving heart.

In the evening I relaxed with my old Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon and the text of Sappho’s poem:

Δέδυκε μὲνἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληίαδες· μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα·
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.


With an ease and rapidity which startled me, I had a scribbled (in green ink) English version of the beautiful poem in front of me:


More clearly:

Together the Moon and Pleiades
have set. It’s midnight now.
The hours in bunches run away.
But I lie down alone.

I feel satisfied that the grouped, companionable departures of the heavenly bodies and of the hours contrasting Sappho’s lonely solitude have been captured in my translation.  I am not, however, satisfied with the translation of Δέδυκε, with its connotations of dedication to the gods, by the colourless “have set.” But, considering that just twelve hours before I was under the impression that I knew little Greek, I’m feeling pretty good!

I wonder now whether I actually do know Old Norse.

Looking into Yeats has Repercussions, or, That Escalated Quickly

The other day I was reading a bit of Yeats. I’m not quite sure why my glance fell on his “A Thought from Propertius” nor why it was held. Perhaps the name Propertius caught my eye. Although I had at one time been mentored by a scholar of Propertius, I had never read a word of the man’s poetry. For some reason I had spent my time with Catullus and Tibullus.

Here is Yeats’ little thought from Propertius:

She might, so noble from head
To great shapely knees
The long flowing line,
Have walked to the altar
Through the holy images
At Pallas Athene’s Side,
Or been fit spoil for a centaur
Drunk with the unmixed wine.

Well! I had to do some searching and find out what old W. B. had read in Propertius’ Latin to inspire that lovely celebration of a particular woman!  After a bit of mucking about on the Internet, I pinned it down to the second elegy in Propertius’ second book of elegies, conveniently titled “Propertius II, ii”.  As I read the Roman boy’s Latin I thought, “Wow! William Butler really distilled the thing down to its bare essence!”  After spending a week or so with Propertius’ deeply mythical allusions — first while translating them into English verse while riding the LRT, then in just rolling the result around in my head — I think I can honestly say I prefer Propertius’ celebration of his lover.

Here’s what I jotted down on that rush hour train ride (Propertius’ Latin follows):

Propertius II, ii.

Free I was and was prepared
for life in an empty bed.
But now the peace I had composed
has been betrayed by Love.
Why does such a human form
loiter on this earth?
I, Jupiter, forgive you your
intrigues in ancient times.
Yellow her hair and long her hands,
her body statuesque.
When walking she is dignified
like the sister of high Jove,
or Pallas when she strides unto
Dulichium’s altars,
her breast concealed by gorgon head
and its snake-bearing locks.
And she is like Ischomache,
the Lapith heroine,
desired spoil of Centaurs’ rape
while they were in their cups.
Like Brimo when, by sacred font
of Boebeis, laid down
her virgin body, so it’s said
beside swift Mercury.
Now yield the contest, goddesses
whom in those ancient days
the shepherd saw take tunics off
up on Mount Ida’s heights.
And oh! may old age never have
the power to change that face
although she reach the span of life
of Cumae’s prophetess.

And, in Latin:

Liber eram et vacuo meditabar vivere lecto;
at me composita pace fefellit Amor.
cur haec in terris facies humana moratur?
Iuppiter, ignosco pristina furta tua.
fulva coma est longaeque manus, et maxima toto
corpore, et incedit vel Iove digna soror,
aut cum Dulichias Pallas spatiatur ad aras,
Gorgonis anguiferae pectus operta comis;
qualis et Ischomache Lapithae genus heroine,
Centauris medio grata rapina mero;
Mercurio satis fertur Boebeidos undis
virgineum Brimo composuisse latus.
cedite iam, divae, quas pastor viderat olim
Idaeis tunicas ponere verticibus!
hanc utinam faciem nolit mutare senectus,
etsi Cumaeae saecula vatis aget!


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My translation of Propertius II, ii is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Like I need to tell you.

Tibullus’ First Elegy

Below is a translation of the first elegy of Tibullus I made partly in Watford, England in the summer of 1983 and partly at home some point thereafter.   The first part of the poem I translated was a passage near the end, which I scrawled that summer on the rear fly-leaf of the Loeb edition I had just bought in Cambridge:


A few days ago (October, 2013) I retouched a few youthful oversights.  I submitted the earlier version to a short-lived 1980s Edmonton literary journal which had published two other poems of mine.  Unfortunately, that journal ceased publication around the time of my submission.   So, this translation has been pretty much unseen since its creation thirty years ago, rattling about first as scraps of paper and then copied from one hard drive to another.

Recently I have returned to translating the Elegies of Tibullus as a bit of a recreational break from the ongoing labour of translating the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records.

Another man may store up gold
as comfort to himself
and he may hold some many yards
of cultivated soil:
that man is scared and labour’s hard
with enemies nearby–
and from that man all sleep will flee
when Martial horns are blown.
But may my poorness carry me
along the lazy road
while yet a bright and warming fire
glows on my humble hearth
and may I be a rustic true
and plant young vines for wine
and large fruit trees with careful hands
at just the proper time.
And may hope not abandon me
but always give to me
a heap of crops and vats of must,
aging into wine.
In fields at stumps I say my prayers
or at a flower wrapped stone;
whatever fruits the new year brings
I place for rural gods.
O Yellow Ceres, may the wreath
of grains of our farmland
which hangs before your temple’s doors
always hang for you
and may the guardian of our fruit
be placed out in the field
that he might frighten stealing birds,
Priapus with his hook.
And you, too, Lares, take your gifts,
you guardians of this field
wealthy once but now quite poor
without fertility.
Then a heifer sacrificed
a thousand bullocks paid;
a small lamb now is victim for
a narrow patch of soil.
For you a lamb is now cut down
and ’round it rustic youths
sing out “give harvests and good wine”
and bravely cheer with joy.
And now for me it I might be
content to live with less
and not to always be forced out
to labour on long roads;
t’avoid the summer rising of
the dog-star’s scorching heat
beneath the shade of leafy trees
beside a river’s flow.
And meantime it is no disgrace
to hold a two-toothed hoe
or goad the tardy mooing cows
back to their tiny pens
nor to hold up to my breast
a lamb or baby goat
forgotten and deserted by
the doe and take it home.
And spare, you wolves and crafty thieves
these thinning herds of mine;
go seek your prey from bigger herds
of richer men than I.
From this small herd and from my field
I’m used to sacrifice
and sprinkle milk once every year
to calm fair Pales’ heart.
Be with me gods and do not spurn
gifts from a table poor
nor from plain pots of earthen-ware
made in ancient time.
Of earthen-ware in ancient times
country men first made
themselves such cups of simple clay
without a wheel or kiln.
I do not need my father’s wealth
which stored-up harvest brought
to my grandsire so long ago;
a small field is enough.
Enough it is to rest my limbs
when I have got the time
upon my couch and sleep again
on my familiar cot.
How fine it is to hear the winds
as I lie in my bed
my mistress held in gentle clasp
close to my happy heart
or, when the wind from out the south
lets go the winter showers,
to seek untroubled happy sleep,
the rain my lullaby.
This be my lot.  Let him be rich
if he can bear the sea
with all it’s rage; deservedly
if he can bear the rains.
I wish that just as much of gold,
as many emeralds green
would perish, as fair maidens weep
if I should travel wide.
For you Massalla war is good,
by land as well by sea,
that you might hang some foriegn spoils
on th’front door of your home.
But I am held by a lovely girl
I’m wrapped up in her chains
and so I sit, a door keeper
outside this cruel gate.
I do not care, my Delia
to win myself some praise;
If I’m with you I would be called
a lazy sluggish man.
That I might see at my last hour
you, looking down at me
and hold you close as I sink down
in final dying clasp!
You will mourn, my Delia
When I lie on my bier
and give me kisses that are mixed
with bitter tears of grief.
You will mourn:  your breast’s not bound
with bands of iron strong
nor does cold flint lie stubbornly
within your tender heart.
Dry-eyed no youth or girl can come
home from that funeral day.
Don’t wound my ghost.  But little rip
young hair and cheeks, Delia.
Meantime, while fates let us do so
let’s join ourselves in love:
soon Death will come, take us away
his head in darkened cowl;
soon idle age will creep to us
and love will not look good,
and grey-haired talk of love
does not become a man.
Light Venus now must be pursued,
when breaking down of doors
and having fun will bring no shame
and fighting in the streets.
Thus do I well the part of duke
and that of man of war;
you trumps and standards go away
and take those wounds with you
and give them to those men of greed
and take to them riches:
I’ll be secure with harvest heaped,
Hate famine just like wealth.

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Tibullus’ First Elegy (translation) by John Richardson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

On First Looking into Humphries’ Latin

I first encountered Rolfe Humphries’ translations from Latin in approximately 1980, perhaps it was first year Comparative Literature, perhaps a Classics class, or maybe that first year Latin class that concluded with journeying to the Underworld with Virgil. Humphries’ Aeneid seemed to be one of the few inexpensive translations in print at the time – Mandelbaum’s appeared about mid-term. A year or two later, when faced with Ovid, I found Rolfe Humphries’ Metamorphoses handy. Again, an alternative, Horace Gregory’s, appeared to late to be of much use.

And then . . .

Late in 2011 I found The Art of Love (actually Amores, Ars Amatoria, Remedia Amoris, and Medicamina Faciei Femineae) at the Book Seller, — one of the great second hand bookshops in Edmonton — not having imagined the boy had done anything other than the Big Two. Read it. Loved it. Was startled by its modernity and honest earthiness, particularly in the context of the straight-laced 1950s when it was published.  These poems — for they are poems, not just translations — remain fresh and alive here in the second decade of the third millenium.  They are as full of life now as they were half a century ago and as they were two thousand years ago.

Back in the 80s I hadn’t known anything of Humphries beyond what was in the blurb on the back of the two books and that one picture of him looking like an undertaker on the back of the Aeneid. But now I had the internet.   I googled the old boy for other works, of which there are many, and I found the story of the Poetry prank in which he pwned the editorial staff of the most important poetry journal in the U.S. and publicly insulted a very wealthy and influential advisor to Presidents.   In retaliation, the Editors banned Humphries from the pages of the magazine, a Pontic exile which lasted two years, although I suspect   Humphries was chuckling through it all.

I simply had to read all of such a wit’s Latin translations.

At this point I’ve read The Art of Love, The Satires of Juvenal and Selected Epigrams of Martial over the last six months and made a start on Humphries’ Lucretius. Soon I will reread his Aeneid and his Metamorphoses, but I simply felt I had to rhapsodize without further delay.

It’s been many years since I last read Humphries Aeneid so I’ll simply mention W. H. Auden’s remark that Humphries, for his Aeneid, should be awarded the highest possible public honour. But, Humphries left us far more than his Aeneid and has far less public honour than he deserves.

Apart from that Latin thing Ovid wrote, the only Metamorphoses I’ve read in more than just snippets is Humphries’, and, again, that was many years ago. For what it’s worth, Ovid and Humphries between them inspired me to cobble together my own verse translations of some passages of Ovid years ago, and to dream of one day, after I’d translated all of Old English poetry, to return to Ovid and translate all of his works. Oh, dreams of youth. I’m bogged down about half way through the Old English stuff.

But, to what I’ve read more recently.

The Art of Love. Published in the 1st century B.C. And 1957 A.D., it describes urban bachelor life and dreams in the heads of  millions of young men in every western city this very evening, it seems to me. For a brief, remarkably stupid moment while reading Humphries’ translation I thought it might be worthwhile to reread C. S. Lewis’ The Allegory of Love to see what he says of Ovid. I quickly dropped Lewis. That tiresome prig seems to have lived in the only time in history in which relations between men and women weren’t at least to some degree a bit of fun. Or maybe it’s just that Lewis hadn’t figured out relations between men and women yet. Either way, Lewis is a road better not taken.

Ovid (and Humphries) writes of a world in which men and women, married to each other or not, but more often not, enjoy the play of physical love — not just sex — and are fully aware of its pitfalls and ephemerality. It is a world of dinner parties with friends, of students struggling to make ends meet while frittering money away at the tavern with the mates or on the wife of a rich man. Lewis dismisses Ovid’s advice to young lovers as satire but to me Lewis seems shockingly insensitive to the love and nostalgia Ovid – he was into his middle age – is expressing about this youthful, reckless, urbane life.  One night a few decades ago in some place on Whyte Avenue (I think it was Yannis), Dave said to me, his belly full of ouzo “We’re sho shuphisticated!” Moments like that are the preludes of Ovidian nights, and Ovid loves that world in all its silliness and absurdity and foolishness.  He is not just satirizing it, Jack.

Humphries is not in the least insensitive:  Humphries gets Ovid. Humphries revels in Ovid’s poetry and helps us to revel in it as well. I am saddened by the sexism which any honest translator must preserve. Ovid’s was a man’s world as was Humphries’, as ours still is in so many ways. Perhaps I’m wishing it on him, but I have a suspicion that Humphries was also saddened by the sexism.

Something that must be mentioned in a discussion of Humphries is anachronism.  Humphries translations read like a sort of amalgam of the classical and modern, Togapunk, if you will.  This  love of anachronism pushes itself to the fore in his Satires of Juvenal into which Humphries inserts at least one spaceship and a very popular singer named Elvius. Juvenal seems to quote Shakespeare, mentions twentieth century race horses by name, discusses secret intelligence about the doings of the Russians and the Chinese (Thracians and Chinese in Latin), and refers to safety deposit boxes. As impossible as it may sound, it works and it works marvellously!  Humphries is translating Juvenal’s comments on Roman society into comments on Western society.  The satire of Rome is retained but there’s another level of modern satire in Humphries translation.  In a sense reproducing the Poetry prank with it’s surface layer of classical reference and the acrostic layer of the contemporary horse’s ass.

In his note to his Selected Epigrams of Martial, while discussing the meters he has chosen, Humphries remarks: “I have had no consistent principle in this matter, nor in my use of anachronism.” We have been fairly warned. A number of the epigrams are translated as limericks:

If you’re passing the baths and you hear,
From within, an uproarious cheer,
You may safely conclude
Maron’s there, in the nude,
With that tool which has nowhere a peer.

[Audeieris in quo, Flace, balneo plausum,
Maronis illic esse mentulam scito]

As impossible as it may seem, what Humphries calls in his introduction to de Rerum Natura his “pigheadded brashnesses” pays off. Humphries’ limerick is far funnier – better, in fact – than Martial’s couplet.  Humphries has Martial at least once refer to a character in the Mikado and Ben Hur even takes a turn around the Circus.  The list of anachronisms in Humphries’ Martial (yes, I made one) would run to many, many pages.  We know  (I hope) the anachronistic references today as well as Martial’s audiences knew the references Humphries has replaced. We know that “Elvius” signifies a Roman who was the Elvis of the time.  And we also know that Martial regularly used false names for contemporaries mentioned in his epigrams, names which suggested the nature and character of the person in question.  Why shouldn’t Humphries choose new names which will have similar resonances for a modern audience?

I hope I’ve not given the impression that Humphries is some sort of Bowdlerizer or popularizer. He is not. Nor is he a students’ crib. These works are frequently very challenging, always charming, very serious poetry in their own right. Humphries has a marvellous handle on what the Latin poets were aiming at, and he is unerring in hitting those same targets for a 20th and 21st century audience. If Martial had lived in 1966, he would have certainly written at least a few limericks. Lucretius in 1968 would have chosen blank verse.

As an undergraduate I was annoyed that Humphries did not hew to the lines of the original (like Lattimore’s Homer) but rather followed the sense as he saw it and put line number references at the top of the page (like Homer by Fitzgerald) or, left out the numbers altogether, as he did in the Aeneid. But now I am an oldster with a share of my own translations under my belt: Humphries is the Man!

Nowadays, if I want a crib, I go to the Loeb. But if I want to read poetry on a quiet evening (and who doesn’t?) I’ll pull out Humphries (or Fitzgerald for Homer) and keep a copy of the original at my side for those times I come across a Gilbert and Sullivan reference about two thousand years out of place. And I’ll chuckle or laugh out loud, charmed again by the wit of a poet — of two poets — far too unknown today. And in coming days I will seek out Humphries translations of Lorca, and, most excitedly, the many volumes of his own poetry.

The breadth of poetic tones Humphries confronts in his translations and the apparent effortlessness of his execution is nothing short of breath-taking. From the high dignity of Virgil, through the hilarious vulgarity of Martial and back to the Wordsworthian philosophizing (without the Wordsworthian pomposity) of Lucretius. From Ovid’s serious and finally tragic playfulness to all the well-placed grumpiness of that curmudgeon Juvenal. Humphries achieved a feat of poetic translation I would argue unequalled in English since the age of Dryden and Pope – if even then – and, unlike the heroic-couplet masters, Humphries did it all on his own. I stand in awe, wondering what he might have done with Catullus. And, if ever a scrap of paper is turned up in the storage rooms of Amherst College with idle bits of a translation of Tibullus’ first elegy, I’ll be at the head of the line for my copy when it’s published, squealing like it’s 1964 and the Beatles – or Elvius — have stepped off the plane.