Interpretation versus translation at the US Supreme Court

I think that most people reading this will agree that interpretation (or interpreting) is not the same as translation. However, outside the strict circle of the profession, the difference is not so well known.

Today we shall see how this distinction is causing a real furore!

The US Supreme Court is currently deliberating over whether costs of translation differ from costs of interpretation, in a case involving a Japanese man. Indeed the transcript of last Tuesday’s session goes into great detail. It’s 63 pages long (perhaps demonstrating the complexity of the issues involved), but well worth reading if the issue piques your interest.

You might like have a look at this Wall Street Journal blog post summarizing the case, which is also peppered with various instances of the words themselves!

It is argued that a plain reading distinguishes “interpretation” from “translation,” and while compensation for the former is expressly permitted in the Court Interpreters Act, the latter is not. Further, it has been held that legislative intent reflects a narrow reading of the statute, and any cost-shifting should be narrowly construed.

The Japan edition of the Wall Street Journal reported on the case as in the following extracts (full version here):

“Consider the facts. In 2008, Mr. Taniguchi filed suit against a hotel in Saipan, accusing it of negligence after he fell through a wooden deck on the premises in 2006. The hotel won and, following a provision in U.S. federal law that says the winner can recoup “interpretation” costs, sent Mr. Taniguchi a bill for $5,517.20, according to court records. Of that amount, $5,257.20 was actually for document translations including some of Mr. Taniguchi’s medical records from Japan.”

Mr. Taniguchi’s lawyers objected, saying the word “interpretation” doesn’t include translation of written material. They lost in a federal appeals court in San Francisco and brought their case to the Supreme Court.

The high court accepts less than 1% of appeals – so why this one? Credit probably goes to Judge Richard Posner in Chicago, one of the nation’s best-known appellate judges, who in 2006 ruled that translations don’t count as interpretations. “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 those works,” averred Judge Posner.

The report of the open access Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School can be found here: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/10-1472

In the report, the American National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) is quoted as arguing that awarding costs for written translations would substantially increase the potential liability for losing parties. Specifically, NAJIT asserts that, while verbal interpretations have natural time (and, therefore, expense) limits, no such limits exist for written translations, which can involve a wide range of documents, depending on a party’s decisions. As a result, NAJIT alleges, the costs associated with written translations often exceed those associated with verbal interpretations, sometimes reaching millions of dollars. In addition, NAJIT argues that granting translation costs would require courts to assess whether the costs were reasonably incurred, and the rate at which a party should be repaid, a lengthy and costly process.

You can list to the audio recording including NAJIT’s argument here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_audio_detail.aspx?argument=10-1472

The questions NAJIT raised included:
Will people be discouraged from taking legal action out of fear of having to pay for large translation expenses? Particularly immigrants and non-English speakers?

Personally, I wondered about whether translation/interpreting costs are considered on an equal footing with other expenses such as lawyers’ fees or expert witness fees?

I hope you have lots of comments on this one!

P.S. A variation on this theme: “What makes a good translator might be open to interpretation, but it’s clear what translates into being a good interpreter“.

Update on 23 May 2012: The opinion has been issued! Translation is officially not the same as interpretation!

5 thoughts on “Interpretation versus translation at the US Supreme Court

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