Of mountains, molehills, and water glasses: learning to control runaway thoughts

Pablo J. Davis

Enlace para espanol/Link here for Spanish

Like a seed lying dormant in the ground, that germinates and finally penetrates through the soil, a parent’s words and lessons can take years, even decades, for the child—now a grown woman or man—to consciously remember, to grasp their meaning and apply them to living.

“Nothing is eaten as hot as it’s cooked”: a father’s distant words remembered, his version of a French saying learned in post-World War II Europe: Rien ne se mange aussi chaud comme il est cuit. An unexpected vision of my father at age 20—a photograph of him in his Army uniform, young and happy, received from my cousin yesterday, on Veteran’s Day—somehow led me to that long-ago saying of his.

(The poet Samuel Hazo’s unforgettable verses from “The Torch of Blood” echo in the mind’s ear: “Before or after Abraham,/what is the resurrection and the life/except a father’s word/remembered in his son?”)

“Nothing is eaten as hot…”: he would say it when his son was worried the night before a difficult test, or over a bigger classmate’s challenge to a fistfight, or being in trouble with a teacher. What we dread, he was saying in his way, is almost never as terrible as we imagine.

“Hold on a minute, thought! Let me see who you are, what you are about. Let me examine you….” The words of the philosopher Epictetus help us calm our anxieties and control runaway thoughts. Photograph ©2021, Pablo J. Davis. All rights reserved.

English has no close equivalent. True, there’s “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill”—the “molehill” some unpleasant incident, the “mountain” an overly angry or dramatic reaction. The phrase looks back at what has happened, though it could probably also apply, like Rien ne se mange, to the anticipation of pain.

The phrase “to talk someone down” may refer to that “mountain” of overreaction.

Sp. No te ahogues en un vaso de agua, literally “Don’t drown in a glass of water” is likewise about proportionality. The very ridiculousness of the image makes for a vividly effective mind-picture of (and caution against) overreaction.

Our fears are not ridiculous, though. The precious human faculty of imagination is not only creative and inspiring—it also has the  power to terrify us. Two thousand years ago, that unparalleled teacher, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, urged his disciples to learn to calm fear and control runaway thoughts: “Don’t let the intensity of your thoughts sweep you away. Instead, say: ‘Hold on a minute, thought! Let me see who you are, what you are about. Let me examine you and put you to the test.’” (Discourses II.18.24–25). Rien ne se mange….

A version of this essay is scheduled for publication in La Prensa Latina https://www.laprensalatina.com on November 21, 2021.

Drinking a unique toast

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Dear reader,

In this season, many a glass is raised and “toasts” offered. The word seems to come from an old custom of using spiced toast to flavor wine; by extension it meant the person whose health was saluted.

Kroyer Peder Severin 'Hip Hip Hurrah!' 1888

Peder Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hoorah! (1888).

In Spanish it’s brindis, one of that language’s rare Germanic (as opposed to Latin) roots. From Ich bring dir “I bring you”—i.e., good wishes. (The verb brindar is “to offer, provide”.)

“To your health!” or variants thereof may well be the world’s most popular toast; Span. ¡Por su salud! or simply ¡Salud! and Fr. A votre santé! are close equivalents.

Toasts can be intricate, as in the legendary old Irish blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm on your face, the rains fall soft on your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

But where drinking and poetry intersect, it’s hard to beat William Oldys’s 18th century “anacreontic” (poetic term for a drinking song), “The Fly”:

Busy, curious, thirsty fly!
Drink with me and drink as I:
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:
Make the most of life you may,
Life is short and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine
Hastening quick to their decline:
Thine’s a summer, mine’s no more,
Though repeated to threescore.
Threescore summers, when they’re gone,
Will appear as short as one!

The empathy and fraternity with a tiny fellow mortal: how moving, how gently expressed! And likely inspired by a real fly on the edge of the poet’s glass.

¡Buenas palabras!
Pablo

 

Pablo J. Davis is an attorney, translator, and historian. A version of this essay was originally published in the Dec. 24-30, 2017 issue of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, USA) as No. 262 of the weekly, bilingual column “Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” [Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción].

Un brindis único

Click here for English/Enlace para inglés

Querida lectora o lector,

Es época de levantar copas y ofrecer brindis. En inglés: toast, lo que significa principalmente “tostada”. En su acepción de “brindis” parece proceder de la antigua costumbre de saborizar el vino con tostadas de especias, y también podía referirse a la persona por cuya salud se brindaba.

Kroyer Peder Severin 'Hip Hip Hurrah!' 1888
Peder Severin Kroyer, Hip, Hip, Hoorah! (1888).

La voz “brindis” es una de las muy pocas en español de origen germánico, en vez de latín. Viene de Ich bring dir, “Yo te traigo”.

“¡Por su salud!” o “¡Salud!” probablemente sea el brindis más popular del mundo. En inglés, To your health! y en francés, A votre santé!

Los brindis pueden ser muy elaborados, como esta legendaria bendición irlandesa: “Que el camino se allane a su encuentro. Que el viento siempre le sople por la espalda. Que el sol le acaricie el rostro, la lluvia caiga suavemente sobre sus campos… y hasta la próxima, que el Señor lo mantenga en la palma de su mano.”

Pero es difícil sobrepasar el “anacreóntico” (canción de taberna) de William Oldys, del siglo XVIII inglés—la traducción al español a cargo de este servidor:

Mosca sedienta y audaz
Bebe, sírvete en paz
A mi copa, bienvenida
Toma todo lo que quieras
Aprovecha el momento
Que la vida es breve y fugaz.

Tu vida cual la mía igual
Corre hacia su final
La tuya un verano dura
La mía, sesenta con holgura.
Mas sesenta años cuando se hayan ido
Cual uno solo parecerán.

Hermosas, la compasión y hermandad que derraman estos versos hacia un pequeño compañero en la mortalidad. Seguro que inspiradas en una mosca real posada en el borde de la copa del poeta.

Good words!
Pablo

Pablo J. Davis es abogado, traductor e historiador. Una versión de este ensayo se publicó originalmente en la edición del 24 al 30 de diciembre 2017 de La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, EEUU) como la entrega nro. 262 de la columna bilingüe semanal “Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción” [Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation].

The violent alienation of “ajeno”

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Dear reader,

Recently your faithful servant stumbled across a recording of a song he had heard from time to time, but has now had a chance to listen to closely. It is a jewel. Beautiful… but painful. Composed by César Calvo, sung in the bell-like tones of Susana Baca, leading exponent of Peru’s Afro musical traditions: “María Landó” is a hypnotic chant evoking the back-breaking, mind-numbing, and most of all soul-deadening work that is the title character’s lot in life. And still that of most of our kind, humankind.

After singing of dawn breaking with its wings of light over the city… and noon with its golden bell of water… and night with its long goblet lifted to the moon… the lyric turns to María “who has no time to lift her eyes, her eyes wracked by lack of sleep, by sorrows… María who has no dawn, no noon or night… For María there is only labor, only labor and more labor… y su trabajo es ajeno: her labor is not her own.”

What power, what violence, what understanding of the world is compressed into that single word ajeno “belonging to another or others, alien, foreign, unfamiliar.” Its root, Lat. alienus, also yields Engl. “alien.” (Think of how the latter word is applied to immigrants.)

Argentina’s incomparable troubador Atahualpa Yupanqui sang of the exhausted herdsman driving cattle in the hills: “Las penas y las vaquitas/ se van por la misma senda./ Las penas son de nosotros,/ las vaquitas son ajenas” (Sorrows and cattle/ moving along the same trail/ The sorrows are our own,/ the cattle belong to another).

The Roman playwright Terence gave us this moving expression of compassion, of solidarity with all our fellow mortals: Homo sum, nihil humani me alienum est—I am human, and nothing that is human is alien to me.

¡Buenas palabras!

Pablo

Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, J.D., is a historian, translator, and attorney. The essay above was originally published in La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) in the Nov. 20-26, 2017 issue, as No. 257 of the weekly, bilingual column “Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation” [Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción].

“Ajeno” y su violencia

Click here for English/Enlace para inglés 

Querida lectora o lector,

No hace mucho este servidor se topó con una grabación musical que había oído de cuando en cuando, pero que en estos días ha podido escuchar detenidamente. Es una joya, hermosa pero dolorosa. Composición de César Calvo, en la voz franca y pasional de Susana Baca, titana del canto afro-peruano: un cántico hipnótico, evocación del trabajo incesante, agotador y embrutecedor al que se ve condenada por las circunstancias una tal María—“María Landó”. Destino aún de la mayoría de la humanidad.

Tras el lirismo de la primera estrofa, que canta a la madrugada con sus “alas que se dispersan por la ciudad”, el mediodía con su “campana de agua de oro” que ahuyenta la soledad y la noche que “levanta su copa larga” a la luna—volcamos la mirada hacia María que “no tiene tiempo de alzar los ojos rotos de sueño”, para quien no hay ni madrugada ni mediodía ni noche sino tan sólo trabajo, incesantemente trabajo y más trabajo: “María de andar sufriendo/ sólo trabaja/ María sólo trabaja/y su trabajo es ajeno…”

¡Cuánto poder, cuánta violencia, cuánta comprensión del mundo, encierra esa sola palabra “ajeno”…! El inglés no logra decir lo mismo con locuciones como belonging to another “que pertenece a otro”. (Y no olvidar las duras connotaciones de “alien” por “inmigrante”.)

El gran trovador argentino Atahualpa Yupanqui una vez cantó: “Las penas y las vaquitas/ se van por la misma senda/ Las penas son de nosotros,/ las vaquitas son ajenas”.

El dramaturgo romano Terencio nos legó esta conmovedora expresión de la compasión, de la solidaridad para con nuestros prójimos: Homo sum, nihil humani a me alienum est: Soy humano, y nada de lo humano me es ajeno.

Good words!

Pablo

Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, J.D., es historiador, traductor y abogado. Este ensayo se publicó originalmente en La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee, EEUU) en la edición del 20 al 26 de noviembre 2017, como la entrega nro. 257 de la columna bilingüe semanal “Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción” [Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation].

A case of falling

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

“What goes up, must come down.” How often do we reflect on the profound wisdom contained in the six words of that hackneyed phrase (five in Spanish: Todo lo que sube, baja)?

caida-fall-sign-cartel-peligro-dangerIt turns out this most simple physical act—if indeed we can call what gravity does the “act” of the body that falls—permeates language in deep and unexpected ways.

“Chance” expresses luck, probability, risk, randomness, opportunity. It comes to us via French from Latin: cadentia was Vulgar Latin for “falling,” from the Latin verb cadere (Span. caer). We hear the cad- root in “cadence,” the rhythm or pulse of music, as with a walking or running pace, but also the way a musical composition or section resolves—how it “falls.” The same root yields “decadence” (Sp. decadencia) and “decay” (Sp. decaimiento is “a weakened or discouraged state”; in the sense of the breakdown or rotting of matter, the Spanish word would be descomposición).

Cadere’s participle form, casus (like “see” has the participle form “seen”), gives us “case”  (Span. caso), whose main sense is a situation requiring investigation and action (such as treatment in the medical realm, prosecution or defense in the legal). Span. acaso means “maybe, by chance.” Casus also gives “casual” for “unplanned, informal” (Spanish emphasizes randomness: casualmente is “by chance”). Another descendant of Lat. casus: war’s “casualties” for “killed and wounded,” though sometimes the term is understood to mean only those killed. More poetically, the casualties of war are expressed as “the fallen”—though, oddly, that phrase with its tone of nobility is generally not applied to civilian dead and wounded, who in most wars are more numerous.

That which happens to us, a bit archaically, “befalls” us. But this sense is alive and well in the latest iterations of language, though expressed differently: we speak of how an event “went down,” we wait and see “how things fall out” and hope they “fall into place.”  Span. cómo caen las fichas is something like “how the dice fall.” We “fall in” with friends, until we have a “falling out.” “Fall in” also means the incorporation of an individual or group,  such as soldiers, into a march, drill, or parade.

One “falls for” a trick; Spanish has caer en la trampa, “to fall into a trap.” Spanish, picturesquely, has caer como un chorlito, literally “to fall like a little bird.” But on figuring something out, on realizing the truth, uno cae en la cuenta—something like “to fall into awareness.”

Between entering the world at birth and our final fall (when one “drops dead,” cae muerto), the most dramatic event in most of our lives is that moment when we “fall in love” (Sp. enamorarse).

Once again we are face to face with the mysterious quality of the verb “to fall,” caer: it seems to name a voluntary action (like “to walk,” “to cook”), yet it really expresses the operation on a body of an exterior force—love, death, gravity.

It’s hard to fathom the importance of this notion to language and culture. In the Christian worldview, the original act of disobedience causes “the Fall” (la Caída) of Humanity into a state of sinfulness. Indeed, the Fall could be understood as the framework for all of human history.

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!

Pablo

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Dec. 11-17, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 210 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).

Word of a thousand disguises: the long, strange career of “freak”

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

Words change across years and generations. They change spelling, sound, and especially meaning. But some follow such long and winding paths, so full of surprises, it can be incredible. One of these is the English word “freak.”

Circus poster photo, Ala., Walker Evans [1935] [AmMemory LOC id- fsa1998017988(slash)PP]

A key association of “freak” is with the circus, where it meant a person displayed due to some unusual (even hideous) characteristic such as extreme height, extra fingers, etc. This photo of a circus poster was taken in Alabama in 1935 by Walker Evans. (Source: Library of Congress, American Memory website)

Brave, fierce warrior.  From Old English, this sense dates to A.D. 900 or before.

Sudden fancy, whim.  This use was well established by the early 19th century. “A sudden freak seemed to have seized him” (Jane Austen). Spanish equivalents: capricho, locura. Not much used anymore. But freak out is—meaning a highly nervous or irrational reaction to a situation: “I need you to stay calm—don’t freak out on me.”

Enthusiast.  From the sense of “whim” arose that of “enthusiast.” It’s still common to hear, “She’s a health freak.” Spanish: Es una maniática de la salud.

Abnormal or extreme specimen. From “whim” came, too, the idea of the abnormal. A very tall person could be called “a freak” or “a freak of nature.” Around 1920 the term “circus freak” began to grow in use. It referred to an unfortunate person or animal fated to be exhibited in a circus, fair, or carnival. Spanish has fenómeno del circo. Typical attractions might be “The Bearded Lady” or “The Two-Headed Calf.”

Unusual, odd, rare. Similar to the previous sense, but distinct, is this broader one: as an adjective, “freak” can simply mean “unusual, odd, rare.” For instance, “a freak early-summer snowstorm” or “a freak occurrence.”

Drug user. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was commonplace to hear “freak” for an enthusiastic drug user, usually of marijuana or LSD.  It was also associated, in men, with beards and long hair. The combination “hippie freak” was common. An underground comic of the era was The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Nymphomaniac, hypersexual person. The drug-related sense began to give way to a new one. Rick James used it when he famously sang, “Super freak, the girl’s a super freak!” The meaning is that an individual is presumably insatiable in the sexual realm. Spanish has ninfómana and many slang terms, including loca (the feminine form of the adjective for “crazy”), much used in Argentina and Uruguay.

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the May 8-14, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 179 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).

What good translation is “for”!

Enlace para español/Link here for Spanish

Dear reader,

 “Latinos para Trump” read signs at the GOP Convention. Clearly it meant “Latinos for Trump” but it didn’t say that: Spanish para can mean “for” but it’s not the same “for” used to indicate support of a candidate. (An even more unfortunate version of the sign, also seen at the convention, was  “Hispanics para Trump” which didn’t even use the Spanish word for “Hispanics”: hispanos.)

Latinos-Hispanics para Trump

Scenes from the Republican Convention held in Cleveland, Jul. 18-21, 2016.

The preposition para mainly means “for the purpose of, in order to, to be used by.” Papel para fotocopiadora, “paper for  photocopier, photocopy paper”; vegetales para ensaladas, “vegetables for salads, salad greens.”

“Latinos para Trump” says something like “Latinos to be used by Trump.” It should read: Latinos por (or con) Trump.

(We’ll revisit por/para again in the near future.)

The mistranslation unintentionally said some other things, too: “This sign was not made by a Latino” or (more accurately) “was not created by a native Spanish speaker.” Even worse: “We don’t care about Latinos, we just want their votes.”

Poor translation is poison: it undermines your message; makes you look foolish; and sends adverse signals—the worst being, “We don’t care enough to do this right.”

Every time an organization assigns a translation to some employee who happens to (it is believed) “speak Spanish,” the result will almost certainly be unfortunate—and maybe deadly: imagine the mistranslation of a safety warning!

Few of us would let our brother-in-law “who fools around with electrical stuff” do the wiring of our house. Or have the neighbor who once took a CPR course operate on our liver. But, in essence, that’s what’s routinely done with translation (and its spoken cousin, interpreting). These are professional, technical skills requiring training and experience, not something you can do just because you (sort of) know a second language—and not even just from being bilingual.

The position must be filled

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

We’re about to see two political conventions whose result may not be foreordained. Many find this strange, even unthinkable. But it’s how conventions used to be—before they became blockbuster TV specials with lots of flash but no real drama.

A bilingual look at some words of the season:

Roman white toga

“Candidate” comes from the Roman custom of those seeking public office wearing a white (candidum) toga, symbolizing purity. It’s unclear if this would make apt electoral attire today.

Convention, from Latin convenire “to come together.” Spanish convención has been widely used for such gatherings for some time; in the early/mid 20th century it surpassed an older term still not entirely obsolete: asamblea (assembly).

“Convention” can also mean a broadly accepted custom, as when broadcasters say a show starts at “9PM/8PM Central” it’s understood 9PM means Eastern time. Spanish “Convengamos en que…” (Let’s agree that) uses this sense of “convention.”

Span. convenio, from the same Latin root, means “agreement” as in an international treaty or a legal settlement.

Candidate and  candidato go back to a Roman custom: aspirants to public office wore white togas. Lat. candidum meant “white, pure.” Engl. “candid” took French’s sense “frank, sincere.” Span. cándido takes up a different sense: “naïve.” Neither “candid” nor cándido generally spring to mind when thinking of politicians.

Nominee. This sense is old in English, from at least the 1680s. The Spanish equivalent: candidato, simply, or titular (el titular del partido Republicano, the Republican Party nominee). A quaint term is “standard-bearer” (“standard” a term for “flag”); Span. has an equivalent, abanderado.

Running. Candidates “run” for office (or “stand” in the UK). In Spanish se postulan or se presentan, which are both also ways of saying “to apply”—as for a job. The electorate is a strange employer, though, as it is forced to hire someone even if not satisfied with the applicants.

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!

Pablo

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Jul. 17-23, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 189 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).

Of masks, minds, sinners, and the word “person”

Enlace para español/Click here for Spanish

Dear reader,

What is it you and I, and everyone we know, are all examples of? So many words for it: “individuals,” “human beings,” just plain “humans,” “persons,” to name just a few. These are plurals; in the singular, each of us is an “individual,” a “human being,” or simply a “human,” or a “person.”  That last word may be the most common of all.persona máscara classic mask

“Person” has an interesting history: it comes from Latin persona, with a root sense of “to sound through”—the reference is to an actor’s mask, possibly with some means of voice amplification, as with a horn. Persona, then, came to mean “role” or “character,” gradually acquiring the further sense of “person, individual.” Engl. “persona” (with the “a” hanging on at the end just like in Latin) still means an assumed role or personality.

Persona’s descendants are found throughout the Romance languages (Sp.. It. persona, Fr. personne which can also mean “nobody,” Port. pessoa, etc.), but also Ger. Person, Swed. person, and many others.

The Slavic languages use a wholly different word: Rus. chelovek (pronounced “chel-a-VYEK”) appears to derive from words for “mind, thought” and “time, eternity”—thus the word for “person” would mean something like “eternal mind,” a lovely and spiritual sense Plato no doubt would have savored. (Engl. “man” seems, likewise, cognate with “mind” and originally meant any human being.)

Depending on the context, a whole series of terms can be more or less equivalent to “person”: “citizen,”  “subject”, “taxpayer,” “voter,” “resident,” and “consumer,” to name just a few. Of course their connotations differ pretty dramatically. There is an assertion of rights implicit in “citizen” that’s not quite there in “consumer,” though the latter has legal rights too.

Then there is “souls” with all its mystery and sometimes pathos—think of a phrase like “the 1,517 souls that perished on the R.M.S. Titanic.”

A curious and fascinating word for “person” is pikadur in Guinea-Bissau Crioulo, a tongue with a strong Portuguese core plus West African elements. Pikadur is from Port. pecador (sinner). Pecado (sin) is related to the second syllable in “impeach” which originally meant “to find fault, to find sin.”  In this word for “person,” the hand of the Christian missionary is not hard to see!

Theology meets language: in Crioulo you may mean “person” but you’re saying “sinner”!

¡Buenas palabras! Good words!

Pablo

Copyright ©2016 by Pablo J. Davis.  All Rights Reserved. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in the Jul. 8-14, 2016 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as number 188 in the weekly bilingual column, “Misterios y Engimas de la Traducción/Mysteries and Enigmas of Translation”.  Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is an ATA (American Translators Association) Certified Translator, Engl>Span; a Tennessee State Courts Certified Interpreter, Engl<>Span; and an innovative trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and intercultural competency, with over 25 years experience. He holds the doctorate in Latin American History from The Johns Hopkins University, and is a Juris Doctor Candidate at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, University of Memphis (May 2017).

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