The conviction in March of a young man from the United States for killing an Irish exchange student raised the issue of how well Japanese courts provide interpretation for non-Japanese put on trial.
Allegations of mistakes during the trial were made by one of the lay judges who spoke English. Although neither the defendant’s lawyers nor the lay judges claimed that the misinterpretations affected the ruling, the case did bring to light an ongoing problem in the court system.
Though that trial was conducted fairly despite certain minor alleged misinterpretations, the issue of translation and interpretation for non-Japanese in Japan’s legal system is a serious one. Without an accurate understanding of testimony, questions and procedures, trials of non-Japanese will end up relying on distorted information or flawed evidence that could result in incorrect rulings.
Some 4,000 people are listed as potential court interpreters in Japan, but none of them is publicly certified. No system yet exists for certification in Japan. Such a system must be developed. Japan’s court interpreters should be screened, accredited and practically trained. The government, together with interpreting schools, should start work on developing a better system for teaching, training and accrediting court interpreters.
Developing such credentials and qualifications is also urgent as more foreign languages are being spoken in Japan. Interpretation is not just for people on trial, but also for witnesses, victims of crime and others involved in legal proceedings.
Interpreting in court is an intense and demanding activity, requiring competence in two languages, plus knowledge of how the court system works. Accordingly, written exams should be part of the accreditation process as well as bilingual interpreting exams and oral proficiency exams in both languages.
Interpretation schools could offer more specialized courses in court work. The central government should support these courses financially. The complexities of Japanese legal language are such that one could almost consider it a third language.
Consequently, the accreditation process should not rely on commercial exams such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), but should instead be developed with greater specialization to the realities of the courtroom and legal process. If sufficient remuneration were in place, more professional interpreters would register for such work, despite it being difficult and demanding. Court interpreters have the satisfaction of knowing they are working to assure a fair system, regardless of what language they speak
Other countries with a greater number of nonnative speakers in their courts have already established such programs for accreditation. The Japanese government should follow those countries’ lead so that everyone in Japan has equal access to a fair trial and to the rule of law.