Difference Between Translators and Interpreters Affects Litigation Costs

Landmark Translation Decision Continues to Have Consequences

Services of legal translators and legal interpreters play an important role in litigation.  We’ve blogged before about Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, the landmark 2012 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the prevailing party in a federal lawsuit is not entitled to reimbursement for document translation costs. Nearly a decade later, Taniguchi’s holding continues to affect federal litigation significantly—especially in places with cases that involve a high proportion of non-native English speakers.

One such jurisdiction is Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory with a population that overwhelmingly speaks Spanish as a first language. The high percentage of Spanish speakers in Puerto Rico creates a comparatively large need for document translation for litigation in the English-speaking federal court system. A federal district court judge recently commented on the disproportionately heavy impact of the Taniguchi rule on prevailing litigants in federal court in Puerto Rico.

Translation and Interpretation Are Different: The Taniguchi Rule

Federal law permits a court to award litigation costs to the party that wins a lawsuit. The types of expenses that a court may award are listed in 28 U.S.C. § 1920. In 1978, Congress passed the Court Interpreters Act, which among other things added “compensation of interpreters” to the list of reimbursable costs in § 1920. Following passage of the Court Interpreters Act, federal courts routinely award the costs of both oral interpretation services and document translation services to prevailing parties.

That practice ended in 2012, when the Supreme Court held in Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan that “compensation of interpreters” does not permit reimbursement of document translation costs. In reaching this conclusion, the Court reasoned that the most common ordinary meaning of interpreter, as used in 1978 when Congress passed the Court Interpreters Act, denoted oral language interpretation but not written document translation. The Court further noted that oral interpretation and written translation require two distinct skill sets that are not interchangeable.

Finally, the Court rejected the argument of three dissenting justices who pointed out that federal judges routinely refer to document translators as interpreters and to oral interpreters as translators. While referring to a document translator as an interpreter might be an acceptable usage, the Court sought the ordinary or most common use of the term. Since the ordinary usage of “interpreter” in 1978 referred only to oral language interpreters, only their fees—not those for written document translations—are reimbursable as “compensation of interpreters.”

Taniguchi Is Widely Applied

Though the Supreme Court’s decision in Taniguchi apparently surprised some federal judges, they have routinely applied its holding to deny the costs of document translation to prevailing parties in federal litigation. Indeed, mere months after Taniguchi was decided, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, of which Puerto Rico is a part, cited Taniguchi to deny reimbursement of document translation costs.

In an order issued before the holding in Taniguchi was announced, the district court in Davila-Feliciano v. Puerto Rico State Insurance Fund approved the reimbursement of “$11,083.80 for costs accrued when [the prevailing party] commissioned the translation into English of certain written documents filed as exhibits to their motion for summary judgment.” The First Circuit reversed this award on appeal, noting that in doing so the court did “not mean to disparage the district court for complying with what, at the time of its ruling, was a somewhat standard practice that did not conflict with Supreme Court precedent.” But Taniguchi’s distinction between oral interpretation and document translation services necessitated reversal of the award.

Federal Judge Notes Taniguchi Disproportionately Impacts Puerto Rico

Earlier this year, Judge Daniel Domínguez deviated from a seemingly routine application of Taniguchi to note its disproportionate impact on federal litigants in Puerto Rico. In Mata-Cabello v. Thula, Thaili Tula prevailed over Asdrubal Mata-Cabello in returning an international child abduction case to Puerto Rico state court from the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. Tula then sought reimbursement from Mata-Cabello under §1920 for $5,380.20 for the translation of various Puerto Rico state court documents from Spanish into English.

Noting that he was prevented from exercising his discretion by the Supreme Court’s holding in Taniguchi, Judge Domínguez denied Tula’s request for reimbursement of the written document translations. He then penned an extensive footnote in which he stated that the case “presents an interesting issue for the First Circuit and Supreme Court as Puerto Rico has a predominant amount of U.S. citizens that speak only Spanish.”

Judge Domínguez’s footnote alluded to the fact that Puerto Rico is home to more than 3 million U.S. citizens, the overwhelming majority of whom speak Spanish as their first language. Indeed, Spanish is the official language of the territory. Because the First Circuit has held that federal court proceedings in Puerto Rico must be conducted in English, a high percentage of the island’s federal cases require documents and communications written in Spanish to be translated into English.

Judge Domínguez’s footnote stopped short of asking the First Circuit or Supreme Court to create an exception to the Taniguchi rule for Puerto Rican cases. But it does call renewed attention to Taniguchi’s continuing impact on federal litigation. As attorneys advise their clients about strategy and costs in federal court, they should make their clients aware that document translation costs are an expense they will have to bear—even if they ultimately win their case.

Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd., Case No. 10-1472, was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States on May 21, 2012.

Davila-Feliciano v. Puerto Rico State Insurance Fund, Case No. 11-1398, was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on July 3, 2012.

Mata-Cabello v. Tula, Case No. 20-1687 (DRD), was decided by the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico on June 8, 2021. An appeal was filed in the First Circuit on July 9, 2021.

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