The conviction of a U.S. minor this week by the Tokyo District Court for the slaying of an Irish exchange student has once again highlighted Japan’s lack of a national accreditation system for court interpreters, after the lay judges complained about misinterpretations.
Mistakes were repeatedly observed in the lay judge trial over the killing of Nicola Furlong, 21, ranging from minor interpreting errors and differences in nuance to the complete omission of some of the conversations between prosecutors and the three professional judges and six lay judges.
The lay judges and the defendant’s lawyer agreed that these errors ultimately did not affect the verdict, which resulted in an indefinite prison term that will run from five to 10 years because the defendant is a minor. Language experts, however, expressed concern over the fairness of the proceedings.
Makiko Mizuno, a professor of linguistics at Kinjo Gakuin University, noted that mock trials have shown that misinterpretation can influence sentence duration by a few years.
“Interpretation for criminal trials involving lay judges requires a much higher skill level than regular conference interpreters because a person’s life depends on it,” said Mizuno, a linguistic analyst of court interpretations.
“Various studies in Japan as well as the United States and Australia have found that even without misinterpretation, the style the interpreter uses or the words chosen clearly affect the ruling,” Mizuno said.
One of the two interpreters in the American youth’s trial, for example, struggled to understand his English, repeatedly mistaking the defendant’s reference of “God” as “guards.”
And when the defendant said, “I’ve never been in a room filled with so much tension,” the same interpreter mistook “tension” with “attention.”
In further instances, the prosecutors stood up angrily several times while the youth was making his final statement. Instead of facing the judges and lay judges, he kept turning to the victims’ parents and addressing them directly, begging for them to believe that he didn’t kill their daughter.
But because the interpreter did not translate the prosecutors’ words, the defendant, who does not understand any Japanese, obliviously continued with his plea to Furlong’s parents, angering the prosecutors even more.
According to the lay judges, misinterpretation was a recurring theme of the trial to the extent that one of them who said she spoke English had to send multiple notes to one of the judges to make him aware about the errors. But they also assured that these corrections were immediately reflected in the court proceedings by the judge.
“There were misinterpretations and misunderstandings and I felt there was a gap” between the testimonies and the interpretation, the lay judge who sent the notes said. “Some parts that were necessary to understand the whole picture were not (correctly) interpreted and were distorted (in meaning).”
But throughout the trial, the court did not take any measures to improve the situation, which is often the case in courts as judges lack awareness of this problem, experts say.
Ever since the lay judge system debuted in 2009, court interpretation has become more important than ever for cases involving foreigners because of the bigger emphasis on oral testimony as opposed to the previous written testimony.
“It shows that Japanese courts don’t value the importance of communication in the courtroom. Japan is completely behind the global standard and is referred to as the ‘Galapagosization’ of court interpreting,” said Kinjo Gakuin’s Mizuno. “Evidence is provided through oral testimonies and incorrect interpretation means the lay judges are not given decent evidence.”
There were 4,067 court interpreters listed by the Supreme Court as of April last year, including 589 Japanese-English interpreters. But there is no public accreditation system and candidates are interviewed by local courts that ask them to provide background information and demonstrate their language skills. While there are some professional interpreters on the top court’s list, others include housewives and company employees with experience overseas.
Other countries, Australia and the United Kingdom among them, have their own public court interpreter registration system, including a thorough screening test and subsequent training.