Friday, March 23, 2012

Can Translation Be Called Interpretation?

Back in October 2009, there was a post on this blog with the title Can interpretation be called translation? To find it, enter jd-glasgow in the Search box on the right – you’ll see why. It was about an ambiguity in the word translation, which means 'written translation' in a narrow sense but 'any kind of translation, written or oral', in the broad sense understood by the general public. Certainly the technical usage is to call the oral kind interpretation.

Now, all of a sudden, the reverse question arises of whether interpretation can be used to include written translation.

Historically, the answer is yes. The Latin word interpres, which is the origin of interpreter, meant any kind of translator. That’s why Louis Kelly’s history of translation is called The True Interpreter. In modern German, Dolmetscher means interpreter, but when Martin Luther, in 1530, penned his famous Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, he was addressing the translators of written texts, more especially the Bible. Later on, the diplomatic ‘interpreters’ in the consulates of European powers in the Middle and Far East did both written and oral translation. But how about today?

Believe it or not, the greatest legal minds in the United States are currently pondering this 'terminological inexactitude', and the transcript of the proceedings so far runs to 63 pages.
“Consider the facts. In 2008, Mr. Taniguchi [a Japanese citizen] filed suit against a hotel in Saipan [a US territory in the Pacific], accusing it of negligence after he fell through a wooden deck on the premises in 2006. The hotel won and, following a provision in U.S. federal law that says the winner can recoup “interpretation” costs, sent Mr. Taniguchi a bill for $5,517.20, according to court records. Of that amount, $5,257.20 was actually for document translations including some of Mr. Taniguchi’s medical records from Japan.
Mr. Taniguchi’s lawyers objected, saying the word 'interpretation' doesn’t include translation of written material. They lost in a federal appeals court in San Francisco and brought their case to the Supreme Court.
The high court accepts less than 1% of appeals – so why this one? Credit probably goes to Judge Richard Posner in Chicago, one of the nation’s best-known appellate judges, who in 2006 ruled that translations don’t count as interpretations. 'Robert Fagles made famous translations into English of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, but no one would refer to him as an English-language ‘interpreter’ of those works,' averred Judge Posner.
There was thus a split among appeals courts – with the San Francisco court, joined by others, taking one interpretation of 'interpretation' and Judge Posner taking another. Such splits can only be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court."
Don't hold your breath. The Justices are not expected to deliver their decision until July. Meanwhile it's not a cut-and-dried case.
"Justice Scalia drew laughter when he offered a suggestion to explain why lower courts have sometimes allowed the billing of translation costs [as interpretation]. 'Stupidity, madam, sheer stupidity,' Justice Scalia said, quoting 18th-century author Samuel Johnson."

My thanks to Guillermo Marco of Intérpretes de Conferencias, S.L., Valencia, for contributing the Wall Street Journal items.

Lost in Interpretation: Japan Citizen Case Goes to Supreme Court. Japan Real Time, Wall Street Journal, February 20, 2012. For the article, click here.

Matter of Interpretation: Supreme Court Sympathetic to Japanese Litigant. Japan Real Time, Wall Steet Journal, February 22, 2012. For the article, click here.

For the verbatim transcript of the Supreme Court hearing, click here.

Louis G. Kelly. The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West. Oxford: Blackwell, 1979. Available from Amazon UK.

Martin Luther. Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen. In H. J. Störig (ed.) Das Problem des Übersetzens, Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1963, pp.14-32. For an English translation, click here.

Brian Harris. Ernest Satow's Early Career as Diplomatic Interpreter. Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 116-134, 2002.
Satow was a British diplomatic interpreter in Japan whose work involved a good deal of written translation.

The United States Supreme Court. Source: Wall Street Journal.


  1. A simple problem "Translation vs. interpretation" received some spice thanks to the lawyers beating about each nicety to exploit... ;-)

    1. In fact the Justices have decided by majority that translation is NOT the same as interpretation. But this applies only to the circumstances in which costs can be awarded.