Ichihashi trial bares translation woes

Courts refuse to admit interpreters often lack the necessary skills

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

The lay judge trial of accused rapist and murderer Tatsuya Ichihashi, whose verdict is expected Thursday, has captured a lot of media attention since it started July 4, but one element that has escaped notice is the quality of the language translation.

Many errors by a court interpreter, from slight differences in nuance to the loss of a few details, have so far been observed during the high-profile case.

This has prompted concerned legal professionals and linguistic experts to call on the courts to face up to the quality of interpretations when foreign nationals are involved in court cases and to improve the training and status of interpreters.

The errors may not have been crucial for the lay and professional judges to decide the facts of the case and Ichihashi’s fate. But experts say having too many mistakes is a major problem because the accuracy of the interpretation is crucial to ensure a fair trial for everyone involved, from defendants, accusers and witnesses to victims and their families.

Several interpretation errors, for example, were made during the fifth session of the trial on July 11 when Julia Hawker, mother of the 22-year-old British victim, Lindsay Ann Hawker, testified as a witness for the prosecution.

The prosecutors’ goal in calling her to the stand was to establish that the consequences of the crimes were grave and that the family wanted Ichihashi severely punished for raping and taking Lindsay’s life and leaving her body in a soil-filled bathtub on his apartment balcony.

When questioned about the impact of her death on the family, the mother said she blamed herself for allowing her daughter to come to Japan. “I couldn’t take a bath for two years,” she said, apparently because of how her daughter was found.

But the court interpreter translated the phrase into Japanese as “I cannot take back the two years.”

A few moments later another misinterpretation was observed. When a prosecutor asked Julia Hawker how the heavy coverage of the case influenced the British people’s perception of Japan, she testified that it had a negative impact and many now feel “Japan was a less safe place to come.”

But the nuance of her testimony was changed when it was interpreted into Japanese: “Japan was the most unsafe place to come.”

When asked whether she knew that Ichihashi wrote a letter of apology to the family, she said that “we didn’t think he would apologize to us. We thought he was sorry for being caught.” But her testimony was interpreted as saying Ichihashi wrote the letter “as a preparation for his trial.”

The law stipulates that when a defendant or witness does not speak Japanese, the court is required to hire an interpreter proficient in the language used by the parties involved.

Ichihashi’s trial is regarded as one of the first cases where a court-appointed interpreter was present for the benefit of the victim’s family, who took an active part in the trial. This has been possible for victims’ families since December 2008, provided the court grants approval. The relatives of victims can participate in trial proceedings with their own attorneys and ask questions of defendants and express their opinions to the courts.

Because no one was officially monitoring the interpretation, the mistakes were not fixed, except for one later in the day when Naoki Motoyama, a professor emeritus of Chiba University who taught Ichihashi at the university and testified for the defense, corrected an error by the court interpreter himself.

When his questioning ended, Motoyama asked the court if he could make a correction in the translation: “I’m not a specialist of fertilizer as the interpreter said. I specialize in pesticides.”

According to Yasushi Sugeno, a veteran criminal trial lawyer and chief attorney in Ichihashi’s defense team, the court insisted on having an interpreter participate throughout the trial for the benefit of the Hawker family. This meant the interpreter wasn’t just going to translate the testimony of the foreign witnesses but translate the entire proceedings.

The unprecedented attempt to provide a translation of the entire proceedings could have been a positive one, but it proved insufficient in this case.

Sugeno said he and his team initially encouraged the court to appoint two interpreters, which is now becoming the norm in lay judge trials when defendants are non-Japanese. But the court only appointed one person, he said.

The Chiba District Court said it cannot comment on the issue as it concerns the contents of an ongoing trial.

The court should always appoint two interpreters, and both should be highly skilled, said Makiko Mizuno, a professor at Kinjo Gakuin University and a specialist in linguistic analysis of court interpretations.

Having two translators is necessary because not only can they take turns but also catch errors and confer over which phrases to use for certain things that are said during testimony, she said.

“I’ve studied many translations (in different fields), but nothing exceeds court interpretation when it comes to the amount of errors made,” Mizuno said.

Experts say the problem starts with the lack of official professional training and proper certification criteria for court interpreters.

Currently, court interpreters of all languages are appointed from a list of designated interpreters on standby, but being listed does not mean one is qualified. There is no professional title or public qualification for Japanese court interpreters.

To be a court interpreter, candidates approach a local district court and are interviewed to determine their language skills and background. Once the court decides to put the person on its list, training happens mostly on the job. Some are professionally trained conference interpreters, but many others are not. Thus, their skills can vary widely.

Trial procedure manuals in various languages exist, and courts hold followup seminars for interpreters. But Mizuno said the status quo won’t change without implementing professional training because everything from language skills and note-taking to the ethics of what to do and not to do as interpreters requires intensive training.

The courts are naive in believing that unless there is a dispute of guilt or innocence, a loose interpretation of testimony won’t pose a major problem, Mizuno said.

According to her mock trial experiments, the buildup of errors such as differences in nuance can influence the decisions of lay judges. “The interpretation can result in a difference of two to three years in the prison term,” she said.

Courts should also realize that the accuracy of interpretation is important for victims’ families who participate in trials to learn what happened to their loved ones, Mizuno said.

For example, the emotional words of apology and regret by defendants are a very challenging part of court interpretation, but “depending on how it is interpreted, it could be misunderstood and increase the anger among the families,” she said.