Legal Translation Reinterpreted In Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd

There are many legal considerations when talking about representation of Limited English Proficient (LEP) persons in the state and federal courts in the United States. One of the most important is the Court Interpreters Act of 1978, which includes a clause permitting the pervailing party to bill the losing party for “compensation of interpreters, and salaries, fees, expenses, and costs of interpretation services”. In the recent court case Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd. the precedent of including translation in the cost of interpretation services was overturned, thus changing the way courts will reimburse for interpretation services henceforth.

When a professional Japanese baseball player sued Kan Pacific Saipan for injury due to a damaged wooden deck while he was on vacation, Kan Pacific Saipan fought back and won the case. They incurred a cost of $5,517.20 translating documents from Japanese to English for defense preparation, and referred to  28 U.S.C. § 1920(6) when asking Taniguchi to reimburse them for these costs.

The problem here lies within the commonly confused terminology: translation versus interpretation. While they are often used interchangeably, coming from the language industry, we know that translation refers to the written word, and interpretation refers to oral communication.

Previous courts “interpreted” the Act to mean both translation or interpretation. While it is not technically the correct term, “common usage” asserts that it can be used to cover both. Justice Samuel Alito delivered his opinion by stating that nowhere is interpretation defined in the Court Interpreters Act, and it must therefore be “given its ordinary meaning”.  Justice Alito joked, “Anybody who wants to read [my opinion] in another language will have to pay to have it translated, not interpreted“.

While this case may teach more people the correct terms for translation versus interpretation, it is not great for the language industry and the promotion of equal rights and protection from all LEP persons being represented in court. While some see little policy ramifications from this case, the basic fairness of the court system is jeopardized if LEP litigants are unable to access to competent interpreters and other language assistance. If litigants do not have access to other language assistance such as document translation, do they receive a fair trial? What do you think of Justice Alito’s interpretation?