Matter of Interpretation: Supreme Court Sympathetic to Japanese Litigant

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Written By admin at Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Supreme Court justices seemed pretty sure Tuesday that they knew how to interpret the meaning of the word “interpreter,” signaling they are likely to rule in favor of a former Japanese baseball player in a case involving translation costs.

Kouichi Taniguchi, a Japanese citizen, brought the suit in 2008 after falling through a deck at a hotel in Saipan, a U.S. territory. When he lost, the hotel tried to make him pay the $ 5,257.20 cost of translating written documents such as medical records, even though U.S. law says only that the winner in such cases can recoup costs of “interpreters” and “interpretation services.” (Read our preview here.)

At arguments Tuesday, justices kept returning to the literal meaning of “interpretation,” which most dictionaries define mainly as the rendering of oral remarks into another language. Justice Samuel Alito said he doubted that even 2% of uses of “interpreter” could be interpreted as referring to the translation of written documents.

Justice Antonin Scalia said translations of literary works such as “War and Peace” may credit the translator with words such as “John Smith, trans.” but never “John Smith, int.”

Justice Scalia drew laughter when he offered a suggestion to explain why lower courts have sometimes allowed the billing of translation costs. “Stupidity, madam, sheer stupidity,” Justice Scalia said, quoting 18th-century author Samuel Johnson.

Justice Elena Kagan conceded that a language expert’s role might be ambiguous in some cases, such as when the expert is shown a document in court and asked to read a translation aloud. But she called them “marginal” cases and said, “The fact that there are some few minutes in every 24-hour period where it’s hard to say that something is night or day does not mean that there is no night and that there is not day.”

The lead lawyers arguing Taniguchi’s side had never met their client and appeared to view the case more as an intellectual pursuit than a way to rack up fees. Douglas Cushnie, a Saipan lawyer who initially took the case and did meet Mr. Taniguchi, declined to discuss what he was being paid, but said in a brief interview, “It’s an issue that should be resolved and we decided to try to resolve it.”

Interpreting the leanings of Supreme Court justices based on oral arguments is a risky business, but Tuesday’s case left little doubt that the justices were prepared to translate Taniguchi’s wish to save about $ 5,000 into reality. A decision is expected by July.

For those wishing to draw their own interpretation, the full transcript of Tuesday’s court session is available here.

Law Blog