“A federal law that allows the winning side in a lawsuit to be paid back for ‘compensation of interpreters’ does not cover the cost of translating documents, the court ruled in a 6-to-3 decision. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the quoted phrase ordinarily refers to the translation of spoken rather than written words. In announcing the decision, Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, No. 10-1472, Justice Alito noted from the bench that it was written in English. ‘Anybody who wants to read it in another language will need to pay to have it translated,’ he said.
On May 21, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd., (No. 10-1472), holding that the cost of document translation is not within the definition of “compensation of interpreters” under 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6). Thus, document translation costs may not be awarded to prevailing parties in federal court lawsuits.
Professional baseball player Kouichi Taniguchi sued Kan Pacific Saipan, the owner of a resort in the Northern Mariana Islands, after his leg broke through a wooden deck at the resort, causing him to suffer injuries and claim damages for medical expenses and lost income. In the course of preparing its defense, Kan Pacific Saipan paid to have various documents translated from Japanese to English. After obtaining summary judgment in its favor, Kan Pacific Saipan submitted a bill for these translation costs, explaining that they were “compensation of interpreters” under 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6). The District Court concluded that the translated documents were necessary to the litigation and properly taxed as costs. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court, explaining that the word “interpreter” can reasonably encompass a “translator” both according to the word’s ordinary usage and to its dictionary definition. The Ninth Circuit also stressed that its construction of the statute was compatible with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54, which includes a preference for the award of costs to the prevailing party.
Granting certiorari to resolve a circuit split, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit. Because the statute does not define “interpreter,” the Court looked to the ordinary meaning of the word. Reviewing relevant dictionaries, the Court concluded that the ordinary or common meaning of “interpreter” does not include those who translate things. Instead, an “interpreter” is normally understood as one who translates orally from one language to another, an understanding confirmed by an examination of the statutory context. Section 1920(6) was enacted as part of the Court Interpreters Act, the collective provisions of which provide a strong contextual clue that Congress was addressing only oral translation and that it intended to use the term ‘interpreter’ throughout the Act in this sense. Further, the Act also includes technical references to the term “interpreter,” which when used technically is distinct from “translator.”
The Supreme Court also disputed the Ninth Circuit’s reading of Rule 54(b), holding that Rule 54(d)’s allowance of “costs” refers to only those relatively minor, incidental expenses enumerated in Section § 1920. Taxable costs are only a fraction of the nontaxable expenses borne by litigants for attorneys, experts, consultants, and investigators. Because taxable costs are limited by statute and are modest in scope, the Court saw no compelling reason to stretch the ordinary meaning of the cost items Congress authorized in § 1920.
Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Kagan joined. Justice Ginsburg filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Breyer and Sotomayor joined.
Authors: Bruce Jones; Larry E. LaTarte