translating, interpreting

From a NYT editorial (“Lost in Translation”) on the 24th:

A persistent problem in American courts is the lack of translators to ensure that litigants who don’t speak or read English can take part in their cases. That’s the purpose of the Court Interpreters Act of 1978, which allows federal courts to order losing parties to pay prevailing parties the cost of interpreters.

In a disappointing 6-to-3 ruling, the Supreme Court defined “interpreter” narrowly to mean “one who translates orally from one language to another.”

This takes us into a thicket of complexities surrounding the verbs interpret and translate and the nouns interpreter, interpretation, translator, and translation.

The first relevant fact is that in everyday English, the verb translate (as well as the related nouns) covers all sorts of conversion of material (of any kind) in one language into an equivalent in another. This includes what is popularly called simultaneous translation, the conversion, in real time, of spoken material in one language into a spoken equivalent in another.

The second relevant fact is that in the technical usage of people who perform language-to-language conversions, real-time conversion of speech to speech is referred to by the verb interpret (and the related nouns) and translate is reserved for less immediate conversion of written text to written text, so that it’s simultaneous interpretation, not simultaneous translation. (In addition, interpreters typically convert in both directions, while translators typically convert in only one direction.)

The third relevant fact is that this technical usage of interpret has leaked into everyday usage to some extent; most people are familiar with expressions like court-appointed interpreter and Sign Language interpreter.

The combination of these facts is a mess. To support the majority ruling on interpreter,

Justice Samuel Alito Jr.’s majority opinion cited reasoning from the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit: “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 these works.”

Well, yes, but that doesn’t bear directly on the question of how to interpret interpreter in the Court Interpreters Act; this is a question of usage in a legal context:

In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained that an intelligent presentation of a case can depend as much on documents as oral statements. It is an acceptable usage of “interpreters,” the justice wrote, “to include translators of written as well as oral speech.”

“Interpreters” isn’t defined in the statute, so the Supreme Court is supposed to give the term its ordinary meaning [ah, that takes us into the thicket]. Federal judges have long included document translators in that definition, Justice Ginsburg said, to put “written words within the grasp of parties, jurors, and judges.” That’s still the more convincing interpretation.

As is often the case, things might have been clearer if the crucial terms had been defined in the act in question.


One Response to “translating, interpreting”

  1. Greg Lee Says:

    To sum up, then, the majority decided to interpret the law, while the minority proposed to translate it as appropriate to the equities.

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