[Research] Freelance translator survey 2020:
3. Working with clients
Benefits and challenges of working with agencies and direct client, rates, and more
Published on 30 November 2020, Last updated 2 February 2021
Working with clients
This section explored the business practices of freelance translators – means of communication, types of clients they work with, rates, scams, and more.
From our own experience, working with translation agencies and working with direct clients each comes with its own benefits and challenges. Some translators work exclusively with one type of client, others with both.
Some of the questions in this section are specifically tailored for each type of client (translation agency or direct client), others refer to general aspects.
Working with translation agencies
Overall, the results revealed that 79% of respondents work with translation agencies.
Benefits of working with translation agencies
Translators who work with translation agencies were asked to cite up to three main benefits of working with this type of client and the percentages citing each factor are shown below.
The most commonly perceived benefit of working with translation agencies is that this allows the translator to focus on working rather than client acquisition. This was cited as a benefit by 67% of all those who work with translation agencies. This was followed by the benefit that the agency also takes care of project management and tasks such as file preparation (52%), again allowing the translator to focus only on the work itself.
39% of the respondents who work with translation agencies see ‘steady workflow’ as one of the main benefits of doing so, and 31% like the opportunity of being able to work on ‘interesting or varied projects’.
Smaller percentages identified as main benefits ‘More flexibility in refusing projects’ (21%), ‘Interacting with people who understand what I do’ (14%), and ‘Access to professional tools’ (7%). Of those who cited ‘other’ benefits of working with translation agencies, their answers included: being able to secure bigger clients or those who don’t work with independent translators, having a more clear cut-off point at delivery of work, and the ability to fill gaps between projects with direct clients.
Challenges of working with translation agencies
Respondents who work with translation agencies were also asked to indicate up to three challenges or difficulties they experience when doing so, or to indicate if they do not experience any challenges or difficulties.
Just 7% of the respondents who work with translation agencies (n=68) said that they do not experience any challenges or difficulties when doing so. The percentages indicating each of the listed challenges or difficulties they experience are shown below.
By far the most commonly cited factor was ‘low rates of pay’, with 62% of the respondents who work with translation agencies saying that this is a problem or challenge for them.
All other listed factors were cited by less than a third of these respondents. ‘Unreasonably tight deadlines’ was mentioned as being a challenge by 32%, and ‘No direct access to end client for clarifications’ was mentioned by 25%. 20% viewed ‘Lack of feedback on my work’ as one of the challenges or difficulties experienced when working with translation agencies.
The 2020 European Language Industry survey carried out by the the European Union of Associations of Translation Companies (EUATC) and International Federation of Translators (FIT – Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs) showed that tight deadlines are a source of stress for translators when working with translation agencies.
Checking potential agency clients
We asked respondents how they conduct checks on potential new translation agency clients (they could tick multiple responses), or to indicate if they don’t do this. The percentages who indicated that they use each of the listed methods of checking on new agency clients are shown below.
8% (n=77) of the respondents who work with translation agencies indicated that they do not conduct any checks on these.
Three of the listed methods were used by relatively high percentages of respondents for checking agency clients. These were ‘Conduct a Google search for the agency’, with 62% of the respondents who work with agencies saying that they do this, ‘Check the agency’s website for professionalism’, cited by 59%, and ‘Check Blue Board on ProZ’, a method reportedly used by 56% of these respondents.
A third of these respondents (33%) said that they would check out a new agency client by asking other translators on social media or listservs. Lower percentages said that they would ask in LinkedIn/Facebook translation groups (20%), check the Payment Practices website (18%), check professional memberships/accreditations (17%), or check Glassdoor (11%).
These findings are also in line with those from a survey run in September 2020 by the Chartered Institute of Linguists in collaboration with the Association of Translation Companies, which revealed that 91% of the respondents check potential agency clients before working with them. Similarly, the methods used to conduct checks were web searches, checking Companies House (in the UK), Blue Board ratings on ProZ, and the Payment Practices database.
Reasons for not conducting checks on new agency clients
Those respondents who work with agency clients but said they do not conduct checks on these were asked to indicate the main reason for not doing so, and the distribution of responses is shown below.
More than a third of these respondents (37%) indicated that they do not regard checks on new agency clients as necessary. However, 23% said that they do not know how to conduct these checks and 21% are not doing so because of a lack of time. The remaining 20% gave ‘other’ reasons for not conducting checks on new agency clients.
Working with direct clients
The results revealed that 81% of translators work with direct clients.
Benefits of working with direct clients
Similar to the section on agencies, translators were asked to cite up to three main benefits of working with direct clients and the percentages citing each factor are shown below.
The most commonly perceived benefits of working with direct clients are ‘Higher rates of pay’, cited as a benefit by 74% of all those who work with direct clients, and ‘Ease of direct communication’, cited by 72%. These were the only two factors mentioned as main benefits by large percentages of respondents.
Lower percentages indicated that ‘They welcome questions and feedback’ (36%), ‘Ability to secure projects in my specialist field’ (30%), ‘They care more about quality’ (26%), and ‘Clear briefing’ (12%) are main benefits of working with direct clients.
Challenges of working with direct clients
Respondents who work with direct clients were also asked to indicate up to three challenges or difficulties they experience when doing so, or to indicate if they do not experience any challenges or difficulties.
In contrast with the 7% of the respondents who reported not experiencing challenges or difficulties when working with translation agencies, around a quarter (23%) of those working with direct clients said that they do not experience any challenges or difficulties when doing so, indicating that, on the whole, this sample of translators find working with direct clients easier than working with translation agencies.
The distribution of the various types of challenges or difficulties experienced by translators when working with direct clients was also found to be quite different from those experienced when working with translation agencies. The findings relating to direct clients are shown in the figure below.
In general, lower percentages of respondents indicated that they experience each of the listed difficulties/challenges when working with direct clients. The most commonly experienced difficulty/challenge was ‘Lack of client understanding of the translation process’, cited by just over a third (37%) of the respondents who work with direct clients. This was followed by ‘Difficulty in turning down work/saying “no”’, experienced by 31% of this group. Only 9% of respondents indicated that ‘Low rates of pay’ are a challenge/difficulty when working with direct clients. Hardly any experienced ‘Unreasonable contract terms’ as a problem (2%).
Checking potential direct clients
We also asked respondents how they conduct checks on potential new direct clients (they could tick multiple responses), or to indicate if they don’t do this. The percentages of translators who indicated that they use each of the listed methods of checking on new direct clients are shown below.
Almost a fifth (19%) of respondents who work with direct clients indicated that they do not conduct any checks on these.
The most commonly mentioned methods for checking on direct clients were ‘Check the company’s website for professionalism’ (58%), ‘Check if they are a genuine/registered business’ (51%), and ‘Conduct Google search for positive/negative comments’ (49%).
Lower percentages said that they would ask other translators (21%) or check the company’s financial information (18%).
Reasons for not conducting checks on new direct clients
Those respondents who have direct clients but said they do not conduct checks on these were asked to indicate the main reason for not doing so, and the distribution of responses is shown in the figure below.
Slightly less than half of these respondents (45%) indicated that they do not regard checks on new direct clients as necessary. However, 25% said that they do not know how to conduct these checks. Just 7% (n=13) said they are not doing so because of a lack of time. The remaining 23% gave ‘other’ reasons for not conducting checks on new direct clients.
Finding and communicating with clients
How and where clients find translators
We asked the respondents to indicate how new clients – whether translation agencies or direct clients – usually find out about their services (they were able to tick multiple methods).
By far the most commonly used method of finding new clients is referral/word of mouth, used by 75% of this sample of freelance translators. No other method was used by more than 50% of the sample. The second most commonly used method by which potential clients find out about the respondents’ services is LinkedIn, cited by 46% of the sample. This was followed by the use of ProZ.com, mentioned by 32% of respondents, and professional association members’ directories, used by 30%. Just 20% of the sample respectively mentioned using social media or the respondents’ own website to provide information on their services to new clients.
Preferred communication method
We were also curious to find out about the respondents’ preferred means of day-to-day communication with clients. The overwhelming majority of respondents (89%) indicated that they prefer to communicate with clients by email, with 6% expressing a preference for WhatsApp and very small percentages citing other methods. This suggests that 95% overall prefer using text-based digital communication of some form.
Online presence – website
The findings also revealed that only 40% (n=469) of the 1,174 respondents who provided this information have their own website.
Benefits of having a website
The respondents were asked to indicate up to three main perceived benefits of having a website.
The most commonly cited benefits of having a website were the ability to ‘Convey a professional image’ (75%), followed by the ‘Ability to display information about my services’ (68%). Around half (51%) of those respondents who have a website perceive that making it ‘Easier for potential clients to find out about me’ is one of the main benefits, and 45% expressed the view that ‘Building credibility/trust’ is a main benefit. Only 16% of these respondents felt that the ‘Ability to display an online portfolio/examples of work’ is a main benefit of having a website.
Reasons for not having a website
When we asked the remaining respondents to indicate the main reason why they do not have a website, the responses revealed a wide range of reasons, as seen in the figure below.
Overall, these findings indicate that most of the respondents who do not have a website do not perceive the need for this, with 20% indicating they have enough clients already, and a further 20% saying that their clients can find them elsewhere without the need for a website. 12% expressed the view that it is not cost-effective for them to have a website. However, 17% indicated that they have no website because of a lack of technical knowledge of how to establish one, and a further 15% indicated that they felt it was ‘too much hassle’ to do so. 18% gave ‘other’ reasons.
It is great to see the increase in the number of website owners amongst translators and interpreters, as only a few years ago I saw another study where the percentage was much lower.
Over the years, we have also found that more and more translators feel very comfortable and proud of having their own website. The main benefit being – as proven by these survey results – conveying a professional image and showing your potential clients you mean business.
I think in the next few years another benefit should emerge – “it is easier for clients to find me”. Thanks to SEO and digital marketing practices, which translators seem to be embracing with open arms, we’re already seeing results from websites that are not only an extension of the CV and a proof of business, but from them being used as a real marketing tool, a hub for freelance business marketing that can bring much more ROI for those who embark on a long-term marketing strategy and are not afraid to innovate and utilise digital marketing tools available to them.
As for those who are afraid that they lack the technical knowledge to get a website – please don’t be! Nowadays, we have so many tools and services available to build websites, that whether you ask someone to do it for you or maybe try WYSIWYG tools yourself, you can have a pleasant experience and an effective final product without getting into too much detail or needing to be adept at coding. Don’t let it stop you and keep on future-proofing your business 😊
Meg Dziatkiewicz is the Creative Director behind Websites for Translators. She holds a degree in Marketing and Advertising, is a Certified Digital Marketing Professional, and a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).
Following up quotations
We also explored whether this sample of freelance translators follow up quotations provided to potential clients if they do not respond, the methods used when doing so, as well as the reasons for not following up, as applicable.
The sample was split fairly evenly in terms of whether they follow up quotations, with 53% (n=615) indicating that they do so.
Reasons for not following up quotations
The figure below shows the distribution of responses regarding the main reasons why respondents do not follow up quotations. 16% indicated that this situation never arose as their clients always respond to quotations, and a further 32% said that they did not bother with follow-ups as they already have sufficient work without doing so. However, 40% of respondents who don’t follow up quotations indicated that this is because of their reluctance to appear too “pushy”.
Those respondents who do follow up client quotations were asked to provide further information on how many follow-ups they would generally carry out, and the usual communication methods used: telephone, email, or other methods. You can see the distribution of answers regarding numbers of follow-ups using different forms of communication below.
The responses revealed that email is by far the most common method for following up quotations. Of the 651 respondents who follow up quotations and answered this question, 61% follow up once by email and a further 37% in total follow up twice or more using email. Only 1% of these respondents do not use email at all to follow up quotations. Just 29% of these respondents follow up quotations once or more using the telephone. Very few use other communication methods to follow up quotations.
On average, those who follow up do so twice, with email being the most popular method (3.5 times more popular than the phone).
Rates comparison for those who follow up quotations vs those who don’t
We compared the rates charged by those who follow up quotations and by those who don’t to see if there are any differences. On average, those who follow up quotations charge 13% higher rates than those who don’t (between 7% and 20% more, depending on the type of client and text).
Asking for feedback
We also asked respondents whether they ask their clients for feedback after project delivery, and the distribution of responses is shown below. This reveals that most of these freelance translators (80% in total) do ask for client feedback at least sometimes and, of these, 23% always ask for feedback.
Charging for freelance translation services
Rates per word and minimum fees
Respondents were asked to consider their main language combination and to indicate their average per source word rates for translation (excluding tax), in the currency most often used. They could choose between GBP, EUR, and USD. The reason for limiting the choice of currency was to be able to easily analyse the results, which have been consolidated and presented in all three currencies, using the following equivalents (accurate at the date of analysis)
1 USD = 0.85 EUR = 0.76 GBP
1 GBP = 1.32 USD = 1.11 EUR
1 EUR = 1.18 USD = 0.90 GBP
The analysis below shows the average rate (arithmetic mean) in each of them (after the data has been consolidated, i.e. each answer in one currency was converted to each of the other currencies). The analysis initially excluded the answers that had cited >0.50 per word, as well as those who mentioned <10, >100, or ‘no minimum charge’. We then included some of them (with the exception of ‘no minimum charge’) using the minimum values (i.e. 0.50 per word, 10, and 100 respectively for minimum charges), and the results are reflected in the tables below.
After the data was published, a few colleagues (to whom we are very thankful) drew our attention to the fact that a median average reflects this sort of information more accurately, so we went back to data and added the median average as well.
There was also a distinction made between rates charged to agencies, direct clients, for general texts, specialised texts, as well as minimum fees applied for each situation.
|General text, average rate per word||£0.073//£0.063||€0.081//€0.07||$0.096//0.083|
|General text, average minimum charge||£22.85//£20||€25.43//€22.2||$30.04//$26.4|
|Specialised text, average rate per word||£0.083//£0.076||€0.092//€0.085||$0.109//$0.1|
|Specialised text, average minimum charge||£24.75//£22.5||€27.54//€25||$32.54//$29.5|
|General text, average rate per word||n=128|
Rates range from £0.01 (n=1) to £0.50+ (n=3)
Rates range from €0.01 (n=8) to €0.50+ (n=3)
Rates range from $0.01 (n=21) to $0.50+ (n=5)
|General text, average minimum charge||n=128|
No min. fee (n=21)
£100+ min. fee (n=1)
No min. fee (n=181)
€100+ min. fee (n=1)
No min. fee (n=120)
$100+ min. fee (n=5)
|Specialised text, average rate per word||n=114|
Rates range from £0.01 (n=2) to £0.50+ (n=4)
Rates range from €0.01 (n=4) to €0.50+ (n=2)
Rates range from $0.01 (n=13) to $0.50+ (n=2)
|Specialised text, average minimum charge||n=115|
No min. fee (n=17)
£100+ min. fee (n=1)
No min. fee (n=158)
€100+ min. fee (n=1)
No min. fee (n=92)
$100+ min. fee (n=4)
|General text, average rate per word||£0.096//£0.09||€0.106//€0.1||$0.126//$0.118|
|General text, average minimum charge||£29.22//£26.6||€32.51//€29.75||$38.40//$35|
|Specialised text, average rate per word||£0.111//£0.099||€0.123//€0.11||$0.146//$0.13|
|Specialised text, average minimum charge||£31.21//£27||€34.74//€30||$41.02//$35.40|
|General text, average rate per word||n=99|
Rates range from £0.01 (n=2) to £0.50+ (n=1)
Rates range from €0.01 (n=5) to €0.50+ (n=2)
Rates range from $0.01 (n=5) to $0.50+ (n=2)
|General text, average minimum charge||n=97|
No min. fee (n=13)
£100+ min. fee (n=0)
No min. fee (n=125)
€100+ min. fee (n=2)
No min. fee (n=82)
$100+ min. fee (n=2)
|Specialised text, average rate per word||n=92|
Rates range from £0.01 (n=2) to £0.50+ (n=3)
Rates range from €0.01 (n=3) to €0.50+ (n=2)
Rates range from $0.01 (n=5) to $0.50+ (n=2)
|Specialised text, average minimum charge||n=88|
No min. fee (n=12)
£100+ min. fee (n=0)
No min. fee (n=131)
€100+ min. fee (n=2)
No min. fee (n=72)
$100+ min. fee (n=3)
There were in total 71 responses (2.4%) citing charges of 0.01/word (in any of the three currencies) out of 2,949 total responses (covering both agencies and direct clients, general and specialised text). The percentage of rates of more than 0.50/word (in any of the three currencies) is 1.1% (31 responses).
According to Slator and a study from the Germany’s Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators (Bundesverband der Dolmetscher und Übersetzer e.V. – BDÜ) on translators’ rates, the magic number is EUR 0.15/per word, which is significantly higher than what our data revealed. On the other hand, the survey from the BDÜ was carried out on their members, while ours was worldwide and included translators who are members of various associations, as well as translators who are not members of any translation association. We therefore decided to look at rates charged by translators who work with German (either as source or target language), and the average rate came to EUR 0.129. Considering that a key finding of this research revealed that members of professional translation associations charge roughly 30% more than non-members, the figures are close to the BDÜ findings.
ProZ also has a page dedicated to average rates charged by translators, and the average rate is around the EUR 0.10/per word mark.
Men vs women – rates
Studies have shown there is usually a significant pay gap between men and women, not only when it comes to employment, but also in the case of freelancers; in fact, a study from IPSE has revealed that self-employed men charge an average of 43% more for their work than self-employed women. Therefore, we wanted to see what the situation looks like for freelance translators and we have discovered that, in fact, women charge slightly more than men, though the difference is small (just under 7%). In terms of minimum fees, the difference is smaller, with men charging 5% more. These calculations were made using the mean average. When using the median average, women charge in fact approximately 12% more and there is no difference in terms of minimum fees.
On the other hand, compared to the general population of self-employed (the same study from IPSE showed that a third of self-employed people in the UK are women), the translation profession is women-dominated, with three quarters of freelancers identifying as women.
We also wanted to see if there was a difference between the type of clients men and women work with (to see whether wider gaps might exist), but both groups work with both agencies and direct clients in similar proportions (80% of women and 83% of men work with agencies, and 80% and 81% respectively work with direct clients).
We also asked the respondents to indicate in which of a range of specified situations they apply surcharges, and the distribution of responses is shown below.
This shows that the most common situation in which freelance translators apply surcharges is when they are required to meet tight deadlines, with 59% giving this response. The second most commonly cited situation in which surcharges are used is being required to work at the weekend or outside normal business hours (49%), followed by projects involving heavy formatting (42%). 21% of respondents said that they never apply surcharges.
The distributions of responses to the question ‘How often have you been asked to lower your rates by agencies or direct clients?’ for those respondents who work with each type of client and who answered the question can be seen below.
This revealed a marked difference between translation agencies and direct clients in terms of the practice of asking freelance translators to reduce their rates. Translation agencies appear to be far more likely to do so, with a total of 41% of respondents who work with agencies saying that they often or always ask for reduced rates, compared with only 14% of direct clients who do so.
59% of respondents working with direct clients say that these rarely or never ask for reduced rates, compared with just 23% of those working with translation agencies who said they rarely or never ask for lower rates.
Frustrating questions from clients
As an optional question, the survey respondents were asked ‘What is the one question that you frequently receive from clients, if any, that annoys or frustrates you?’ In total, 449 respondents took the opportunity to answer this question, and their answers were categorised as follows:
By far the most frequent request or question that translators find annoying is the one related to fees (n=165), from ‘What’s your best rate?’ to ‘Why is it so expensive?’ and subsequent requests for lower fees.
“Why does it cost so much?”
“Can you waive your minimum fee? It’s only a small project!”
“Why is it so expensive? I am sure you have done this type of translation before.”
“What is your most competitive rate?”
“Can you give us your best rate?”
Another ‘popular’ question is regarding deadlines, namely asking for unreasonably quick turnarounds or changing the deadline after initial agreement (n=79).
“Can you do it today/in a couple of hours from now?”
“Can you finish it faster?”
“Can you do it for yesterday?”
There seem to be a lot of questions from clients that stem from their little knowledge of our profession (n=86), which takes the form of questions/statements such as:
- it’s easy (12)
- they don’t provide details (13)
- asking to translate in other languages (16)
“What’s so difficult about it? I can do it myself/run it through Google”
“Being told it won’t take me long to translate the text as it’s easy because it doesn’t contain many words. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the translation process and what’s involved, and this is especially annoying when it’s said by an agency.”
“If I can translate into another language other than my native language”
“Asking for price and delivery date without sending the document to be translated.”
- non-natives questioning basic grammar or using Google to back translate
- suggesting corrections that are actually incorrect
- that translation is not a “real” job
“Non-native speakers with poor English skills using Google Translate (or similar) to back translate word for word my English=>French work to their language. Very, very frustrating. Thanks for the trust.”
“Are you sure this is the closest equivalent? (when there is absolutely no doubt possible and the client does not speak your target language)”
“Do you still work as a translator?”
8% of respondents (n=38) have said they do not receive questions that annoy or frustrate them, or that they don’t easily get annoyed.
“None; I always seem to have nice clients.”
“None, really. Interaction with clients is almost always useful. E.g., occasionally a client will second-guess me, but that is a sign that they are uncomfortable with one of my formulations, so an opportunity to chat with them — positive.”
Client scams and protection
Scams and non-payment
We asked the respondents whether they had ever been the victim of non-payment or a scam (e.g. identity theft, overpayment scam) perpetrated by a translation agency or direct client. The percentages of respondents reporting that they had been a victim or not of these types of activity perpetrated by translation agencies or direct clients respectively are shown in the figure below (N.B. the percentages in each case total more than 100 as some individuals gave more than one response).
Although these findings indicate that the experience of scams is relatively uncommon, being reported by only 5% and 4% of those working with translation agencies and direct clients respectively, they also show that non-payment is much more widespread, with 26% of those working with agencies and 21% of those working with direct clients reporting that they have experienced this.
The American Translators Association has a free webinar (held by Carola F. Berger) detailing various types of scams, how to recognise them, and, more importantly, how to protect ourselves. It’s definitely worth a watch!
I’m not surprised that (just) 8% of respondents don’t conduct any checks on potential agency clients, but I am disappointed that anyone would fail to do so. Accepting a project from a new agency client almost always means extending credit to that client because the project is delivered before payment is received. Would anyone expect a bank to grant them a loan without checking their credit worthiness?
Somewhat disconcerting is the two top “checks” reported by respondents – doing a Google search and checking the agency’s website for professionalism. While an internet search may reveal some information about a client, and having a website that seems “professional” are good indicators that a client is probably not a scammer, they say nothing about a client’s creditworthiness. There is no substitute for using sources whose primary function to provide credit reports on T&I agencies, sources such as Payment Practices, The Blue Board, and the numerous social media groups and listservs dedicated to just that – reporting the payment behavior or T&I agencies. It’s not apparent from the survey, but I do hope respondents use more than just one of source when vetting clients. The wide dispersion of reports by freelancers means that no single source can be fully reliable. Of those 8% who don’t conduct any check, I am truly flabbergasted that 37% of them don’t see a credit check as necessary. I wonder if those respondents are relative newcomers who are unaware of the risk they are taking, or conversely, are they experienced professionals who have developed a sixth sense about potential clients and can weed out potential bad apples based on their initial communication with them? Finally, I’d be happy to educate the 23% who don’t know how to vet clients and the 21% who think they don’t have time to do a check. No project is so urgent that it can’t wait 5 or 10 minutes to check 2 or 3 online sources before accepting the risk of non-payment.
With respect to vetting potential direct clients, my general reaction is about the same as for agency clients. While the sources of information differ, the process is the same. I do note that the survey doesn’t break down direct clients into “commercial” clients who are more likely to be repeat clients, and private individual clients who are almost all “one-off” clients, where the latter are (hopefully) paying in advance or on delivery so there is no credit risk.
I am very surprised that more than a quarter of respondents (25.51%) reported experiencing non-payment by agency clients. That is more than double the historical rate of non-payments based on reports to Payment Practices, which has remained steady at around 9.5% to 10% over the last 20 years. That may be the result of users of Payment Practices, The Blue Board, and other vetting sources taking on less risk than those who don’t use such information.
Ted Wozniak is a German to English translator, specialising in financial and accounting documents. He is also the President of Payment Practices, an online database providing freelance translators and interpreters with information about the payment practices of translation agencies and other clients.
Professional indemnity insurance
We also asked the respondents whether they have professional indemnity insurance (PII)/professional liability insurance (PLI)/errors & omissions (E&O) or similar. Only 24% of the 1,036 respondents who answered this question said that they have any of these forms of insurance.
Sections of Freelance translator survey 2020
- Key findings & demographics
- Working as a professional translator
- Working with clients (current page)
- COVID-19 & Brexit
- Freelance translator profile
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