Translators vs Interpreters: The Supreme Court Rules

In my last blog, we examined interpreting in hospitals performed by professional and amateur translators. Afterall, that is what the newspaper article called them, and I followed suit. However, there is something politically incorrect with that label, a distinction now recognized by our highest court. In May, this fine line was drawn in the books… that is, until they find an argument with which to refute it and write possibly another 25-page decision.

What recently landed on the bench of Justice Samuel Alito all started with a fall through a wooden deck; it was former professional Japanese baseball player Kouichi Taniguchi’s and he sued Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd for injuries related to the incident that occurred at their Northern Mariana Island resort. A federal judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the suit and awarded costs to Kan Pacific; in turn, Kan Pacific tried to recover costs of translating written documents into Japanese in excess of $5,000. They cited Section §1920: Taxation of costs a judge or clerk of any court of the United States may tax as costs includes Compensation of interpreters. It was not long before this amendment – that interestingly was part of The Court Interpreters Act of 1978, signed by President Carter on October 29, 1978 – was called into question.

What are interpreters? Do they interpret words written or spoken (or signed for that matter)? Mr. Taniguchi’s team argued it was the latter – that translations are not included – and this time, they were batting 1000.

The Court came to the decision that written translation is not in fact interpretation. The reasoning was found in many dictionaries – among them, the 1978 Oxford English Dictionary, that bore the meaning of “interpreter” as limited to someone who translates orally from one language to another.

Contrarily, over time most Appeal Courts have often determined that “interpreter” does in fact include translation of written material to which 3 out of the 9 Supreme Court Justices in this case agreed: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Their rationale is that it is difficult to make the distinction because many documents may be read aloud by a linguist, and existing practice in most federal courts allows for reimbursing the costs of translation.

While I didn’t realize it at the time of reading the aforementioned article, I constantly get requests from clients who say they need “translating” or a “professional translator” when I know they really mean interpreting. We offer these two services so I am usually cognizant of assessing what exactly the client needs; when I say “interpretation” it usually dawns on them. I presume it is just more common to say some form of the word ‘translation’. But now, according the our highest court, we are urged to adapt our language to be politically correct… at least when it comes to compensation in court.

We are still allowed to have a sense of humor, however. Justice Samuel Alito said that the justices made the decision available in English: “Anybody who wants to read it in another language will have to pay to have it translated, not interpreted.”