Friendly Ump: Japanese Ballplayer Wins at Supreme Court
By Peter Landers
The legal team of former Japanese professional baseball player Kouichi Taniguchi hit a home run at the U.S. Supreme Court, as a dictionary-wielding Justice Samuel Alito ruled for a 6-3 majority that Mr. Taniguchi’s interpretation of the word “interpreter” was correct.
As we have reported, Mr. Taniguchi lost a suit against a hotel in Saipan over an injury he suffered in 2006 when his leg fell through a wooden deck. A 1978 federal law says the victor in such cases can recoup the cost of “interpreters” from the loser. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the hotel could bill Mr. Taniguchi about $5,000 for its costs translating written documents in connection with the case.
Justice Alito said translating documents doesn’t count as interpretation. His reasoning relied heavily on dictionaries current in 1978, most of which defined an interpreter as one who translates oral communication. The Oxford English Dictionary included a definition of an interpreter as one who translates “books or writings,” but described that definition as obsolete, Justice Alito wrote.
The decision proved again that noted appeals court Judge Richard Posner of Chicago is a power hitter at the Supreme Court. While other appellate courts had found that “interpreter” includes translators of written material, Judge Posner ruled otherwise in 2006, prompting the Supreme Court review to resolve the conflict. Justice Alito cited Judge Posner’s comment that no one would refer to the translator of the Iliad and the Odyssey as an English-language “interpreter” of those works. Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Elena Kagan joined the majority.
Three dissenters offered a different interpretation. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, said it was hard to distinguish between interpretation and translation. She cited the example of a linguist being asked to read aloud a sight translation of a document in court.
Justice Ginsburg said the law was “not so clear as to leave no room for interpretation,” and she said she preferred to reach an outcome that would harmonize with the existing practice in most federal courts of allowing the costs for written translation.
In a court full of legal arcana, this case was simple enough for anyone with a dictionary to play along. Offer your interpretation in the comments.