Conflicting Dictionaries II

Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd., 132 S.Ct. 1997 (2012).  About seventeen months ago, the Appellate Division had a personal injury protection (PIP) case, Perez v. Farmers Mutual Fire Ins. Co., 417 N.J. Super. 403 (App. Div. 2011), discussed here, that turned in part on which of multiple dictionaries had the most authoritative definition of “van.”  There, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language won out over Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.  Now, the Supreme Court of the United States has decided another “battle of the dictionaries.”

The issue in this case was whether the cost of translating foreign language documents into English is compensable as “compensation of interpreters” under the Court Interpreters Act, 28 U.S.C. §1920(6).  By a 6-3 vote, the Court held that “‘compensation of interpreters’ is limited to the cost of oral translation and does not include the cost of document translation.”  Justice Alito wrote for the majority, while Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor.

Though the respective opinions did not rely entirely on dictionary definitions in reaching their conclusions, dictionaries played a significant role in both opinions.  Justice Alito marshaled the American Heritage Dictionary, the Scribner-Bantam English Dictionary, the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, and several legal dictionaries.  Those sources defined “interpreter” as “one who translates spoken, as opposed to written, language.”  He also cited the Oxford English Dictionary, which defined “interpreter” as “one who translates languages,” but then divided that definition into two parts:  a “translator of books or writings,” which the dictionary designated as “obsolete,” and a translator of oral communications.

Justice Ginsburg, in contrast, looked to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (like Justice Alito’s cited dictionaries, the edition that existed at the time that the Court Interpreters Act was adopted in 1978), Black’s Law Dictionary, and Ballentine’s Law Dictionary.  Those sources did not distinguish between translation of oral versus written communications.

In both Perez and this case, Webster’s did not come out the winner.  In another case, Webster’s might fare better.  Regardless, both cases teach that not all dictionary definitions are the same, and that it may pay to consult as many dictionaries as possible for a particular definition.