How do you define “interpreter”?

May 21st, 2012

Here’s how Justice Alito does it in  Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd.:

To determine whether the item “compensation of interpreters” includes costs for document translation, we must look to the meaning of “interpreter.” That term is not defined in the Court Interpreters Act or in any otherrelevant statutory provision. When a term goes undefined in a statute, we give the term its ordinary meaning. Asgrow Seed Co. v. Winterboer, 513 U. S. 179, 187 (1995).The question here is: What is the ordinary meaning of “interpreter”?Many dictionaries in use when Congress enacted theCourt Interpreters Act in 1978 defined “interpreter” as one who translates spoken, as opposed to written, language.The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, definedthe term as “[o]ne who translates orally from one language into another.” American Heritage Dictionary 685 (1978).The Scribner-Bantam English Dictionary defined the related word “interpret” as “to translate orally.” Scribner

Bantam English Dictionary 476 (1977). Similarly, the Random House Dictionary defined the intransitive form of“interpret” as “to translate what is said in a foreign language.” Random House Dictionary of the English Language 744 (1973) (emphasis added). And, notably, theOxford English Dictionary defined “interpreter” as “[o]newho translates languages,” but then divided that definition into two senses: “a. [a] translator of books or writings,” which it designated as obsolete, and “b. [o]ne who translates the communications of persons speaking different languages; spec. one whose office it is to do so orally in the presence of the persons; a dragoman.” 5 Oxford English Dictionary 416 (1933); see also Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English 566 (6th ed. 1976) (“One whointerprets; one whose office it is to translate the words ofpersons speaking different languages, esp. orally in their presence”); Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary 686 (1973) (“one who translates orally for the benefit of two or more parties speaking different languages: . . . a translator (obs.)”).
Pre-1978 legal dictionaries also generally defined the words “interpreter” and “interpret” in terms of oral translation. The then-current edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, for example, defined “interpreter” as “[a] personsworn at a trial to interpret the evidence of a foreigner . . . to the court,” and it defined “interpret” in relevant part as“to translate orally from one tongue to another.” Black’s Law Dictionary 954, 953 (rev. 4th ed. 1968); see also W. Anderson, A Dictionary of Law 565 (1888) (“One whotranslates the testimony of witnesses speaking a foreign tongue, for the benefit of the court and jury”); 1 B. Abbott, Dictionary of Terms and Phrases Used in American or English Jurisprudence 639 (1878) (“one who restates the testimony of a witness testifying in a foreign tongue, to the court and jury, in their language”). But see Ballentine’s Law Dictionary 655, 654 (3d ed. 1969) (defining “inter preter” as “[o]ne who interprets, particularly one who interprets words written or spoken in a foreign language,” and “interpret” as “to translate from a foreign language”).

Against these authorities, respondent relies almost exclusively on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (hereinafter Webster’s Third). The version of that dictionary in print when Congress enacted the CourtInterpreters Act defined “interpreter” as “one that translates; esp: a person who translates orally for parties conversing in different tongues.” Webster’s Third 1182 (1976).2 The sense divider esp (for especially) indicatesthat the most common meaning of the term is one “whotranslates orally,” but that meaning is subsumed withinthe more general definition “one that translates.” See 12,000 Words: A Supplement to Webster’s Third 15a(1986) (explaining that esp “is used to introduce the most common meaning included in the more general precedingdefinition”). For respondent, the general definition suffices to establish that the term “interpreter” ordinarilyincludes persons who translate the written word. Explaining that “the word ‘interpreter’ can reasonably encompass a ‘translator,’” the Court of Appeals reached the sameconclusion. 633 F. 3d, at 1221.

That a definition is broad enough to encompass onesense of a word does not establish 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, 301 (1989) (relying on the “most common meaning” and the “ordinary and natural signification” of the word“request,” even though it may sometimes “double for ‘demand’ or ‘command’”). The fact that the definition of “interpreter” in Webster’s Third has a sense divider denoting the most common usage suggests that other usages,although acceptable, might not be common or ordinary. It is telling that all the dictionaries cited above defined “interpreter” at the time of the statute’s enactment asincluding persons who translate orally, but only a handful defined the word broadly enough to encompass translatorsof written material. See supra, at 5–7. Although theOxford English Dictionary, one of the most authoritativeon the English language, recognized that “interpreter” can mean one who translates writings, it expressly designatedthat meaning as obsolete. See supra, at 6. Were the meaning of “interpreter” that respondent advocates trulycommon or ordinary, we would expect to see more supportfor that meaning. We certainly would not expect to see itdesignated as obsolete in the Oxford English Dictionary.Any definition of a word that is absent from many dictionaries and is deemed obsolete in others is hardly a common or ordinary meaning.

Based on our survey of the relevant dictionaries, we conclude that the ordinary or common meaning of “interpreter” does not include those who translate writings. Instead, we find that an interpreter is normally understood as one who translates orally from one language toanother. This sense of the word is far more natural. As the Seventh Circuit put it: “Robert Fagles made famoustranslations into English of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, but no one would refer to him as an Englishlanguage ‘interpreter’ of these works.” Extra Equipamentos E Exportação Ltda. v. Case Corp., 541 F. 3d 719, 727 (2008).

This is one of the longest discourses on dictionaries I have seen in a SCOTUS opinion.

Here’s how Justice Ginsburg does it:

To be comprehended by the parties, the witnesses, andthe court, expression in foreign languages must be translated into English. Congress therefore provided, in 28
U. S. C. §1920(6), that the prevailing party may recoup compensation paid to “interpreters.” The word “interpreters,” the Court emphasizes, commonly refers to translators of oral speech. Ante, at 5–6. But as the Court acknowledges, ante, at 7, and n. 2, “interpreters” is more than occasionally used to encompass those who translate written speech as well. See Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language 1182 (1976) (here- inafter Webster’s) (defining “interpreter” as “one that translates; esp: a person who translates orally for partiesconversing in different tongues”); Black’s Law Dictionary 895 (9th ed. 2009) (defining “interpreter” as a “person who translates, esp. orally, from one language to another”);Ballentine’s Law Dictionary 655 (3d ed. 1969) (defining “interpreter” as “[o]ne who interprets, particularly one who interprets words written or spoken in a foreignlanguage”).

In short, employing the word “interpreters” to includetranslators of written as well as oral speech, if not “themost common usage,” ante, at 8, is at least an “acceptable” usage, ibid. Moreover, the word “interpret” is generallyunderstood to mean “to explain or tell the meaning of: translate into intelligible or familiar language or terms,” while “translate” commonly means “to turn into one’s ownor another language.” Webster’s 1182, 2429. See also Random House Dictionary of the English Language 744, 1505 (1973) (defining the transitive verb “interpret” as, inter alia, “to translate,” and “translate” as “to turn (something written or spoken) from one language into another”).

Totally random aside, but last night I dreamed I was talking to a friend, who was complaining that President Nixon should have appointed Danny Boggs, rather than Samuel Alito, as Secretary of State. Yes, this is what I dream about.

Update: RBG did some more dictionary work today in Astrue v. Capato:

Nothing in §416(e)’s tautological definition (“‘child’ means . . . the child . . . of an individual”) suggests thatCongress understood the word “child” to refer only to the children of married parents. The dictionary definitionsoffered by respondent are not so confined. See Webster’s New International Dictionary 465 (2d ed. 1934) (defining “child” as, inter alia, “[i]n Law, legitimate offspring; also,sometimes, esp. in wills, an adopted child, or an illegitimate offspring, or any direct descendant, as a grandchild, as the intention may appear”); Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 214 (11th ed. 2003) (“child” means “son or daughter,” or “descendant”). See also Restatement (Third)of Property §2.5(1) (1998) (“[a]n individual is the child ofhis or her genetic parents,” and that may be so “whether or not [the parents] are married to each other”).

Speaking of dictionary work, when I was in 3rd grade, as a form of punishment, the teacher made us copy an entire section out of the dictionary (for example, all the “N” words). We cycled through them as a class. I remember I got like Q or X or some silly letter when I misbehaved. Small number of words. Even though I thought copying stuff out of a book was a horrid waste of time.

Update: Mike Ramsey weighs in on this originalist/textualist approach:

Regardless of whether a textualist approach should focus on a statute’s meaning at the time of enactment (seethis exchange with Professor Tom Bell), the Taniguchi opinion appears to confirm that the Court’s statutory textualism does focus in this way.  Though Justice Alito says several times that he is investigating the phrase’s “ordinary” meaning, he relies on enactment-era (or earlier) sources — carefully seeking out 1978 editions of the leading dictionaries — and does not consider whether the meaning might have changed in the intervening 30-plus years.  The question, to his mind, is what “interpreters” meant in 1978.

As I’ve noted before, that approach seems fairly uncontroversial as applied to statutes; it’s interesting that, as applied to the Constitution, it gets called “originalism” and becomes the subject of all sorts of theoretical objections.