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Language professionals call for court interpreter qualification regime

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

Legal and linguistic professionals think a qualification system is needed for court interpreters to weed out incompetent ones who might be doing more harm than good, a recent survey says.

According to the poll, conducted in April and May by an association of legal interpreters, about 60 percent of the 92 respondents said some kind of qualification should be required to become a court interpreter, while 18 percent, or 17 pollees, said a “national” qualification is needed.

The respondents consisted of 72 lawyers and 20 linguistic professionals, 12 of whom have been court interpreters.

Currently, no qualification is required to become a court translator. Candidates are interviewed at district courts to assess their language skills and backgrounds. Those who are considered adequate are listed as translators, according to the Supreme Court.

“There was one time when the English translation was inaccurate,” one lawyer wrote in the survey. “I was able to notice the inaccuracy because it was English. But if it had been in a different language, there is no way I would have spotted it.”

Another said court interpreters sometimes omit subtle yet critical nuances.

Lawyer Remi Shiraki, who led the survey, said the government should establish a system to train specialized court interpreters to ensure quality.

“If a defendant is Japanese, we can tell whether the person is feeling really sorry or not by listening to their wording and nuances. But some interpreters change the words of a defendant and the manner in which they speak,” Shiraki said Friday. He said inaccurate translations can affect judges’ impressions. “Legal professionals like us also need to keep in mind that there could be differences in nuance from what a defendant says and what an interpreter says. Otherwise, it could lead to an unexpected result,” she said.

In 2012, among 1,500 defendants whose verdicts were finalized in lay judge trials, 145 used court translators, according to the Supreme Court.

As of April 1, 2013, 3,965 people were registered as court translators nationwide, covering 61 languages, the court said.

  • Steve Jackman

    I agree that there needs to be some minimum requirements and certification for court interpreters. However, there are three additional problems which the Japanese judicial system needs to also address.

    First, litigants in civil lawsuits should be allowed to select their own interpreter for their own oral testimony in court, as long as, the interpreter they want to use is registered with the court. This is only fair, since the litigant is the one who has to pay the fees for the interpreter. I know of a case in the Tokyo District Court where the foreign litigant wanted to bring his own interpreter to the court hearing for his oral testimony. The judge refused his request, even though, this interpreter was officially registered as an interpreter with the Tokyo District Court. Instead, the judge appointed his own interpreter to interpret the foreign litigant’s testimony from English to Japanese. The interpreter the judge appointed against the litigant’s wishes was not competent or objective.

    Second, the courts need to ensure that the court’s written record of the litigant’s oral testimony in court matches the audio recording made by the court of the litigant’s oral testimony. In one civil case in the Tokyo District Court, the foreign litigant was shocked when he read the court’s written transcript of his oral testimony in court, since it was completely different from and contradicted by the audio recording he secretly made of his oral testimony in court. The discrepancies between the court’s official written transcript of the foreign litigant’s oral testimony and the actual audio recording of his testimony were not due to issues with poor interpretation by the interpreter, so the court clearly engaged in foul play by altering and falsifying its written transcript record of the litigant’s oral testimony.

    Lastly, the courts need to adhere to their own rules for preserving the record of the audio recording they make of the litigant’s oral testimony in court for the specified number of years, in accordance with the court’s own rules. In the above civil case, when the foreign litigant objected to the Tokyo District Court about the inaccuracies and discrepancies in the court’s written transcript of the litigant’s oral testimony in court vs. the audio recording of the oral testimony, the court clerk at the Tokyo District Court told the foreign litigant that the court had already destroyed the audio record it made of the litigant’s oral testimony in Court. The audio record of the litigant’s oral testimony in court was destroyed by the Tokyo District Court less than six months after the date of the oral testimony and before the judge had even given his verdict in the case, which is clearly a violation of court rules. Luckily, the foreign litigant made his own secret audio recording of his oral testimony, which proves that the Tokyo District Court falsified it’s written transcript record of the oral testimony.