Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd.
566 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
This case arose from a personal injury action brought by petitioner, a professional baseball player in Japan, against respondent, the owner of a resort in the Northern Mariana Islands. The costs that could be awarded to prevailing parties in lawsuits brought in federal court were set forth in 28 U.S.C. 1920. The Court Interpreters Act amended that statute to include "compensation of interpreters." At issue was whether "compensation of interpreters" covered the cost of translating documents. Because the ordinary meaning of the word "interpreter" was a person who translated orally from one language to another, the Court held that "compensation of interpreters" was limited to the cost of oral translation and did not include the cost of document translation.
  • Syllabus
  • Opinion (Samuel A. Alito, Jr.)
  • Dissent (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

TANIGUCHI v. KAN PACIFIC SAIPAN, LTD., dba MARIANAS RESORT AND SPA

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

No. 10–1472. Argued February 21, 2012—Decided May 21, 2012

Title 28 U. S. C. §1920, as amended by the Court Interpreters Act, includes “compensation of interpreters” among the costs that may be awarded to prevailing parties in federal-court lawsuits. §1920(6). In this case, the District Court awarded costs to respondent as the prevailing party in a civil action instituted by petitioner. The award included the cost of translating from Japanese to English certain documents that respondent used in preparing its defense. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, concluding that §1920(6) covers the cost of translating documents as well as the cost of translating live speech.

Held: Because the ordinary meaning of “interpreter” is someone who translates orally from one language to another, the category “compensation of interpreters” in §1920(6) does not include the cost of document translation. Pp. 3−15.

     (a) Section 1920 reflects the substance of an 1853 Act that specified for the first time what costs are allowable in federal court. That provision defines the term “costs” as used in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d), which gives courts the discretion to award costs to prevailing parties. Crawford Fitting Co. v. J. T. Gibbons, Inc., 482 U. S. 437 . As originally configured, §1920 contained five categories of taxable costs, but in 1978, Congress enacted the Court Interpreters Act, which added a sixth category that includes “compensation of interpreters.” §1920(6). Pp. 3−5.

     (b) Because the term “interpreter” is not defined in the Court Interpreters Act or in any other relevant statutory provision, it must be given its ordinary meaning. Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, 513 U. S. 179 . When Congress passed that Act in 1978, many dictionaries defined “interpreter” as one who translates spoken, as opposed to written, language. Pre-1978 legal dictionaries also generally defined “interpreter” and “interpret” in terms of oral translation. Respondent relies almost exclusively on a version of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary that defined “interpreter” as “one that translates; esp: a person who translates orally for parties conversing in different tongues.” Although the sense divider esp (for especially) indicates that the most common meaning of the term is one “who translates orally,” that meaning is subsumed within the more general definition “one that translates.” That a definition is broad enough to encompass one sense of a word does not establish, however, that the word is ordinarily understood in that sense. See Mallard v. United States Dist. Court for Southern Dist. of Iowa, 490 U. S. 296 . Although 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. Notably, the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the most authoritative, recognized that “interpreter” can mean one who translates writings, but it expressly designated that meaning as obsolete. Any definition of a word that is absent from many dictionaries and is deemed obsolete in others is hardly a common or ordinary meaning. Given this survey of relevant dictionaries, the ordinary meaning of “interpreter” does not include those who translate writings. Nothing in the Court Interpreters Act or in §1920 hints that Congress intended to go beyond this ordinary meaning. If anything, the statutory context suggests that “interpreter” includes only those who translate orally. See 28 U. S. C. §1827. Moreover, Congress’ use of technical terminology reflects the distinction in relevant professional literature between interpreters, who are used for oral conversations, and translators, who are used for written communications. Pp. 5−11.

     (c) No other tool of construction compels a departure from the ordinary meaning of “interpreter.” This Court has never held that Rule 54(d) creates a presumption in favor of the broadest possible reading of the costs enumerated in §1920. To the contrary, the Court has made clear that the “discretion granted by Rule 54(d) is not a power to evade” the specific categories of costs set forth by Congress, Crawford Fitting, supra, at 442, but “is solely a power to decline to tax, as costs, the items enumerated in §1920,” ibid. This Court’s conclusion is in keeping with the narrow bounds of taxable costs, which are limited by statute and modest in scope. Respondent’s extratextual arguments―that documentary evidence is no less important than testimonial evidence and that some translation tasks are not entirely oral or entirely written―are more properly directed at Congress. In any event, neither argument is so compelling that Congress must have intended to dispense with the ordinary meaning of “interpreter” in §1920(6). Pp. 12−15.

633 F. 3d 1218, vacated and remanded.

     Alito, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Ginsburg, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer and Sotomayor, JJ., joined.

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