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War And Peace

17th July 2019

When dealing with legal and contractual language, the smallest error or omission can have lasting consequences

How important is precision in legal and contractual language? Anyone who’s prosecuted a case, bought a house or even signed up for a mobile phone agreement can answer that question.

Exhibit A. Berwick upon Tweed.

Because of a legal technicality, this tiny village has been at war with Russia for the past 166 years. As it didn’t escalate into open conflict during the Cold War it’s unlikely to do so now, but it’s a quirky reminder of what can happen when we fail to pay attention to detail.

Just a few miles from the Scottish border, Berwick is the northernmost town in England and its residents have historically had to grapple with an identity crisis over their nationality. The local football team plays in the Scottish League, and football fans are not alone in their confusion. Reigning British monarchs have also struggled with the issue. When Queen Victoria made her official declaration of war against Russia in 1853, she signed herself as “Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions”.  When the Treaty of Paris ended the Crimean War three years later the town wasn’t named, leaving it in a stand-off with a nation whose population of 144 million would have a slight edge in any clash with Berwick’s plucky 12,000.

In 1966 the Soviet Union offered an olive branch, sending an official delegation to meet the Mayor of Berwick.  Accepting the hand of friendship Mayor Robert Knox gallantly reassured them: “please tell the Russian people that they can sleep peacefully in their beds.” But he had no authority to end the conflict, and no formal record of the meeting exists. So the stalemate drags on, with no official end in sight.

The subtlest error in legal and contractual translation can have lasting consequences. Familiar concepts in one legal system may not even exist in another, so you need a communication partner that can help you navigate with confidence.

Conversis was founded in 2003, exactly 150 years after Queen Victoria started this curious, accidental war. Who knows, perhaps our Russian linguists might be able to broker peace between Russia and Berwick upon Tweed? If you’re reading, Mr Putin, Conversis is only a phone call away.


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