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Interpreting Not Translation, US Supreme Court Rules

Is there a difference between interpreting from another language and translating? According to the US Supreme Court, the answer is a resounding “yes,” at least when it comes to lawsuits.

The Court’s ruling in the Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan case limits “translation” to the written word and “interpreting” to the spoken word. The case began with a Japanese baseball player, Kouichi Taniguchi, falling through a wooden deck at resort in the Marianas owned by Kan Pacific Saipan. He injured his leg, sued the resort owners for negligence, and lost. According to the Court Interpreters Act of 1978, under American law the winner in a lawsuit is allowed to force the loser to pay the costs of “interpretation.”

The definition of interpretation came under scrutiny as Kan Pacific Saipan tried to force Mr. Taniguchi to pay them back over $5,000 for the cost of having some court documents translated into Japanese. Mr. Taniguchi’s legal team argued that since the translation was written instead of oral, it was not covered under the Court Interpreters Act.

As the New York Times reports, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed, with Judge Richard Posner writing, “Robert Fagles made famous translations into English of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, but no one would refer to him as an English-language ‘interpreter’ of these works.”

The Supreme Court also agreed, ruling that losing parties are only required to pay for oral interpreters and not for document translation, with Judge Samuel Alito joking that  since the opinion was only issued in English, “Anybody who wants to read it in another language will have to pay to have it translated, not interpreted.”

Frankly, it seems silly to include oral interpreting and exclude written translation. The legal system is complex, and both interpreting and translation are often necessary to make it accessible to all parties. This Supreme Court ruling may hew to the letter of the law, but it doesn’t seem in keeping with its spirit.

As a New York Times editorial noted:

“Federal judges have long included document translators in that definition, Justice Ginsburg said, to put “written words within the grasp of parties, jurors, and judges.” That’s still the more convincing interpretation.”

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Kouichi Taniguchi s