When the parties have no common language, and the draft agreements are in two (or more) languages, this greatly complicates the negotiating process and raises the additional problem of misunderstandings through mistranslation.

Our own favourite translation story from the petroleum industry dates back to 1993 and is completely inconsequential.

We were negotiating an exploration agreement for the North Caspian with the Kazakhs. This ultimately led to the discovery of the giant Kashagan field.

The agreement was in both English and Russian, although the Kazakh’s first language was Kazakh, not Russian. The participants in the Western consortium were referred to as “Foreign Members”.

After six months of negotiation, when the parties were starting to understand each other, one of the Kazakh delegation told us over a vodka-soaked dinner that the word “member” is ambiguous in Russian, just as in English. Apparently this was a source of constant amusement to the Kazaks, as it accurately represented their first impressions of us Westerners. 

The signed agreement refers, in both Russian and English versions, to the “Foreign Participants”. Some of the Kazakhs still prefer “Foreign Members.”

Chris Thorpe

Chris Thorpe is a respected independent lawyer in the upstream oil and gas industry, and an established lecturer and author. Chris has a LLB in law from Magdalene College, Cambridge and trained as a barrister in London. He worked for eight years' as an in-house lawyer for BP and Marathon. Since 1991, Chris has run his own upstream legal practice, CPTL, which has acted for many upstream clients. He has extensive experience of international upstream transactions, principally in the North Sea, the FSU, Africa and the Middle East. Chris has spoken at many UK and International Conferences and Seminars, both public and in-house. His most popular current lecture is Fundamental of Upstream Petroleum Agreements, a two-day course with accompanying book.