High Court Confronts Linguistic Tangle in International Mining Dispute

The phrase ‘lost in translation’ was certainly apposite to a High Court case in which a commercial dispute hinged on the disputed meaning of a foreign statute, which was written in two foreign languages and had been translated into English six times, each version throwing up slight, but potentially critical, differences.

Two companies had obtained licences to mine heavy rare earth metal deposits in a former Soviet republic. They had invested heavily in the venture but the licences were ultimately withdrawn by the republic, which claimed that they had been procured by bribery and were in any event worthless.

The dispute was referred to an arbitration tribunal, seated in London. The tribunal proceeded with the arbitration after rejecting the republic’s arguments that it had no jurisdiction to consider the matter. The republic responded by challenging the tribunal’s jurisdiction before the Court under Section 67 of the Arbitration Act 1996.

There was no dispute that the jurisdictional issue turned on the correct translation of a statute of the republic that afforded protections to those prepared to invest money in the country’s development. The statute was written both in Russian and the native language of the republic and there was, amongst other things, a dispute over whether the two versions conflicted.

The Court was presented with six English translations of the statute and heard evidence from experts in the law of the republic and linguistic specialists. It ultimately preferred the interpretation of the statute contended for by the companies and confirmed the tribunal’s jurisdiction.