Taniguchi v. Kan Pac. Saipan, Ltd.

Decision Date21 May 2012
Docket NumberNo. 10–1472.,10–1472.
Citation132 S.Ct. 1997,182 L.Ed.2d 903,566 U.S. 560
Parties Kouichi TANIGUCHI, Petitioner v. KAN PACIFIC SAIPAN, LTD., dba Marianas Resort and Spa.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Michael S. Fried, for Petitioner.

Dan Himmelfarb, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Douglas F. Cushnie, Saipan, MP, Donald B. Ayer, Counsel of Record, Michael S. Fried, Christopher J. Smith, Jane E. Holman, Jones Day, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Thomas L. Roberts, Dooley Roberts & Fowler LLP, Tamuning, GU, Dan Himmelfarb, Counsel of Record, Paul W. Hughes, Michael B. Kimberly, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

The costs that may be awarded to prevailing parties in lawsuits brought in federal court are set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 1920. The Court Interpreters Act amended that statute to include "compensation of interpreters." § 1920(6) ; see also § 7, 92 Stat.2044. The question presented in this case is whether "compensation of interpreters" covers the cost of translating documents. Because the ordinary meaning of the word "interpreter" is a person who translates orally from one language to another, we hold that "compensation of interpreters" is limited to the cost of oral translation and does not include the cost of document translation.


This case arises from a personal injury action brought by petitioner Kouichi Taniguchi, a professional baseball player in Japan, against respondent Kan Pacific Saipan, Ltd., the owner of a resort in the Northern Mariana Islands. Petitioner was injured when his leg broke through a wooden deck during a tour of respondent's resort property. Initially, petitioner said that he needed no medical attention, but two weeks later, he informed respondent that he had suffered cuts, bruises, and torn ligaments

from the accident. Due to these alleged injuries, he claimed damages for medical expenses and for lost income from contracts he was unable to honor. After discovery concluded, both parties moved for summary judgment. The United States District Court for the Northern Mariana Islands granted respondent's motion on the ground that petitioner offered no evidence that respondent knew of the defective deck or otherwise failed to exercise reasonable care.

In preparing its defense, respondent paid to have various documents translated from Japanese to English. After the District Court granted summary judgment in respondent's favor, respondent submitted a bill for those costs. Over petitioner's objection, the District Court awarded the costs to respondent as "compensation of interpreters" under § 1920(6). Explaining that interpreter services "cannot be separated into ‘translation’ and ‘interpretation,’ " App. to Pet. for Cert. 25a, the court held that costs for document translation "fal [l] within the meaning of ‘compensation of an interpreter,’ " ibid. Finding that it was necessary for respondent to have the documents translated in order to depose petitioner, the court concluded that the translation services were properly taxed as costs.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed both the District Court's grant of summary judgment and its award of costs. The court rejected petitioner's argument that the cost of document translation services is not recoverable as "compensation of interpreters." The court explained that "the word ‘interpreter’ can reasonably encompass a ‘translator,’ both according to the dictionary definition and common usage of these terms, which does not always draw precise distinctions between foreign language interpretations involving live speech versus written documents." 633 F.3d 1218, 1221 (2011). "More importantly," the court stressed, this construction of the statute "is more compatible with Rule 54 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which includes a decided preference for the award of costs to the prevailing party." Ibid. The court thus concluded that "the prevailing party should be awarded costs for services required to interpret either live speech or written documents into a familiar language, so long as interpretation of the items is necessary to the litigation." Id., at 1221–1222.

Because there is a split among the Courts of Appeals on this issue,1 we granted certiorari. 564 U.S. ––––, 132 S.Ct. 71, 180 L.Ed.2d 939 (2011).


Although the taxation of costs was not allowed at common law, it was the practice of federal courts in the early years to award costs in the same manner as the courts of the relevant forum State. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. v. Wilderness Society, 421 U.S. 240, 247–248, 95 S.Ct. 1612, 44 L.Ed.2d 141 (1975). In 1793, Congress enacted a statute that authorized the awarding of certain costs to prevailing parties based on state law:

"That there be allowed and taxed in the supreme, circuit and district courts of the United States, in favour of the parties obtaining judgments therein, such compensation for their travel and attendance, and for attornies and counsellors' fees ... as are allowed in the supreme or superior courts of the respective states." Act of Mar. 1, 1793, § 4, 1 Stat. 333.

Although twice reenacted, this provision expired in 1799. Alyeska Pipeline, supra, at 248, n. 19, 95 S.Ct. 1612; Crawford Fitting Co. v. J.T. Gibbons, Inc., 482 U.S. 437, 439, 107 S.Ct. 2494, 96 L.Ed.2d 385 (1987). Yet even in the absence of express legislative authorization, the practice of referring to state rules for the taxation of costs persisted. See Alyeska Pipeline, 421 U.S., at 250, 95 S.Ct. 1612.

Not until 1853 did Congress enact legislation specifying the costs allowable in federal court. Id., at 251, 95 S.Ct. 1612. The impetus for a uniform federal rule was largely the consequence of two developments. First, a "great diversity in practice among the courts" had emerged. Ibid. Second, "losing litigants were being unfairly saddled with exorbitant fees for the victor's attorney." Ibid. Against this backdrop, Congress passed the 1853 Fee Act, which we have described as a "far-reaching Act specifying in detail the nature and amount of the taxable items of cost in the federal courts." Id., at 251–252, 95 S.Ct. 1612. The substance of this Act was transmitted through the Revised Statutes of 1874 and the Judicial Code of 1911 to the Revised Code of 1948, where it was codified, "without any apparent intent to change the controlling rules," as 28 U.S.C. § 1920. 421 U.S., at 255, 95 S.Ct. 1612.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d) gives courts the discretion to award costs to prevailing parties. That Rule provides in relevant part: "Unless a federal statute, these rules, or a court order provides otherwise, costs—other than attorney's fees—should be allowed to the prevailing party." Rule 54(d)(1). We have held that " § 1920 defines the term ‘costs' as used in Rule 54(d)." Crawford Fitting, 482 U.S., at 441, 107 S.Ct. 2494. In so doing, we rejected the view that "the discretion granted by Rule 54(d) is a separate source of power to tax as costs expenses not enumerated in § 1920." Ibid.

As originally configured, § 1920 contained five categories of taxable costs: (1) "[f]ees of the clerk and marshal"; (2) "[f]ees of the court reporter for all or any part of the stenographic transcript necessarily obtained for use in the case"; (3) "[f]ees and disbursements for printing and witnesses"; (4) "[f]ees for exemplification and copies of papers necessarily obtained for use in the case"; and (5) "[d]ocket fees under section 1923 of this title." 62 Stat. 955. In 1978, Congress enacted the Court Interpreters Act, which amended § 1920 to add a sixth category: " Compensation of court appointed experts, compensation of interpreters, and salaries, fees, expenses, and costs of special interpretation services under section 1828 of this title." 28 U.S.C. § 1920(6) ; see also § 7, 92 Stat. 2044. We are concerned here with this sixth category, specifically the item of taxable costs identified as "compensation of interpreters."


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 other relevant 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, 115 S.Ct. 788, 130 L.Ed.2d 682 (1995). The question here is: What is the ordinary meaning of "interpreter"?

Many dictionaries in use when Congress enacted the Court Interpreters Act in 1978 defined "interpreter" as one who translates spoken, as opposed to written, language. The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, defined the 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, the Oxford English Dictionary defined "interpreter" as "[o]ne who 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 who interprets; one whose office it is to translate the words of persons 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: ......

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