Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd., 132 S. Ct. 1997 (U.S. 2012)

Petitioner, a professional baseball player, brought a personal injury lawsuit against Respondent, the owner of a resort in the Northern Mariana Islands.  Petitioner claimed damages for medical expenses and lost income from contracts he was unable to honor as a result of injuries he suffered from an accident at the resort.  Following discovery, both parties moved for summary judgment.  In preparing its defense, Respondent paid to have various documents translated from Japanese to English.  After the District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands granted Respondent’s motion for summary judgment, Respondent submitted a bill for those costs, which the district court awarded as “compensation of interpreters” pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1920, which  sets forth the costs that may be awarded to prevailing parties.  The court ruled that document translation fell “within the meaning of ‘compensation of an interpreter.’”

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment and its award of costs.  The court explained that, based on its dictionary definition and common usage, the word “interpreter” could reasonably encompass “translator.”  The court also stressed that this construction of § 1920 was compatible with Rule 54 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which includes a decided preference for the award of costs to the prevailing party.

The Supreme Court considered whether the costs awarded to prevailing parties in a lawsuit brought in federal court pursuant to § 1920, as amended by the Court Interpreters Act to include “compensation of interpreters,” covered the costs of translating documents or was limited to oral translations.  To answer this question, the court considered the ordinary meaning of “interpreter.”  Because this term was not defined in the Court Interpreters Act or in any other relevant statutory provisions, the court conducted a survey of relevant dictionaries, including dictionaries in use when Congress enacted the Court Interpreters Act, i.e., the American Heritage Dictionary, the Scribner-Bantam English Dictionary, the Random House Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, pre-1987 legal dictionaries and Black’s Law Dictionary, among others, to determine the term’s ordinary meaning.  The court determined that all relevant dictionaries defined “interpreter” at the time of the statute’s enactment as including persons who translate orally.  Only a handful defined the word broadly enough to encompass translators of written materials.

Respondent agreed that the most common meaning of the term “interpreter” is “one who translates orally,” but argued that this meaning was subsumed within the more general definition “one that translates.”  The court disagreed, finding that a definition that is broad enough to encompass one sense of a word does not establish that the word is ordinarily understood in that sense.  Furthermore, the court determined that nothing in the Court Interpreters Act or in § 1920 suggested that Congress intended to go beyond the term’s ordinary meaning, and, if anything, the statutory context suggested that “interpreter” included only those who translate orally.  Congress’ use of technical terminology reflected the distinction in relevant professional literature between interpreters, who are used for oral conversation, and translators, who are used for written communications.

The court also held that no other tool of construction compelled a departure from the ordinary meaning of “interpreter.”  Specifically, the court explained that it had never held that Rule 54(d), which gives courts discretion to award costs to prevailing parties, created a presumption in favor of the broadest possible reading of the costs enumerated in § 1920.  The court noted that the discretion granted by Rule 54(d) was not a power to evade the specific categories of costs set forth by Congress but was “solely a power to decline to tax, as costs, the items set forth in § 1920.”

Finally, the court rejected Respondent’s additional arguments that documentary evidence is no less important than testimonial evidence, and that some translation tasks are not entirely oral or entirely written, as being more properly directed at Congress.