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Court interpreters’ working conditions a threat to fairness

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

The introduction of the lay judge system four years ago has only added to the stress placed on court interpreters, as they grapple with ever-worsening working conditions that have left them fatigued, ill-prepared and more error-prone, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations warns.

“We have heard many court interpreters complain about their situation since the lay judge system kicked off,” Osaka-based lawyer Akiko Kuribayashi said in a recent interview in Tokyo.

“They’re frustrated that the media spotlight is on how those citizen judges are coping with their experience, while their own situation goes unnoticed.”

Spearheaded by Kuribayashi and other like-minded lawyers, the JFBA submitted a petition last month to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Justice Ministry calling for a quick remedy to the situation. In putting together the petition, they interviewed interpreters and sent inquiries to the courts.

In the four years since the system was introduced, experts say conditions have deteriorated for court interpreters — both Japanese and foreign nationals who are needed in trials involving defendants who have difficulties with the Japanese language.

Out of consideration for lay judges, who are often forced to take a leave of absence from their jobs, trials are fast-tracked to ensure participants can swiftly return to normal life.

This has left interpreters with little time to prepare, Kuribayashi said, noting that adequate preparation is a key to maintaining the quality of their performance, since court interpreters need to deal with a torrent of legal jargon as a trial unfolds.

Each session lasts longer than before, as well, sometimes all day, making it difficult for interpreters to stay focused.

“It’s really hard for those interpreters to translate what defendants say with perfect precision,” Kuribayashi said.

Improving the treatment of court interpreters is long overdue as accusations continue to abound about their poor skills, opaque remuneration policies, and, above all, the lack of a proper screening process.

The Tokyo District Court told The Japan Times that aspiring interpreters are first asked to attend some trials to see first-hand how court interpreters do their job, and write a report about their impressions.

Some are then called in for an interview, where officials assess their “sincerity, motivation, fair-mindedness and interpretation skills.” But the district court stopped short of specifying how exactly those qualities are assessed.

Kuribayashi, for her part, stressed there is currently no accreditation system to clarify how one qualifies as a court interpreter.

“We’ve met some foreign interpreters who nailed the job just because, say, they were married to Japanese nationals and were bilingual enough to carry on everyday conversations,” she said.

The lawyers’ petition, therefore, first and foremost proposes running candidates through a national standardized test. It also suggests grouping qualifiers according to how well they do on the test and assigning interpreters to cases based on the level of complexity.

The petition calls for publicizing the details of how remuneration is decided. At the moment, court interpreters know very little about how their pay is determined, except that the decision is totally up to the courts, Kuribayashi said. Such uncertainties have left some interpreters feeling unrewarded for their hard work and routine struggles with immense emotional pressure, she added.

According to the Tokyo District Court, there is “no set standard for (interpreters’) payments,” and they “are paid whatever amount courts deem appropriate.”

The decision is based on criteria such as “what foreign language they deal with,” “how complicated cases are,” and “whether defendants plead guilty or not.”

The court didn’t specify how, or even whether, the interpreter’s performance is taken into account.

Aside from the lack of transparency, the pay is abysmally low, Kuribayashi said, citing the widespread joke that the occupation is “nothing more than a volunteer activity.”

From the start, court interpreters were required to team up and take turns to keep their focus sharp. But working with a partner means dividing an already meager paycheck and many are refusing to share work, Kuribayashi said. It’s difficult to make ends meet as a court interpreter, so most have other jobs, she said, adding that highly paid professional interpreters, routinely hired for major international conferences, don’t register as court interpreters.

When contacted by The Japan Times, the Supreme Court responded with a written statement affirming its position that “there is nothing wrong with the way court interpreters participate in trials.”

“We will continue to pursue our campaign for the fairer treatment of court interpreters,” Kuribayashi said, while admitting that the next move hasn’t been formulated yet.

“Above all, we’re most concerned that doing nothing about worn-out, ill-treated interpreters could eventually undermine the basic human rights of foreign defendants,” she said. “Protecting their rights is our most important mission.”

  • Dismantle_Me

    Interesting article, but no details or even rough ideas of the ranges in which these interpreters are paid. Without knowing even this, it’s hard to feel for them.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Sounds like one of those ブラック企業 (black companies) stories?

  • Toolonggone

    They could be guaranteed decent pay if hired directly by the local/prefectural government. But that’s not likely the case.