Better court interpreters needed

Errors committed by a court interpreter found in the recent trial of a former member of the Japanese Red Army extremist group underlines the importance of ensuring the accuracy of translations in trials involving foreign defendants or witnesses. Such errors impinge on the ability of a trial to mete out justice and undermines public trust in the judiciary. People and organizations concerned should consider introduction of some form of uniform qualification for people who serve as court interpreters.

The errors took place during the trial at the Tokyo District Court of Tsutomu Shirosaki, 68, who was eventually found guilty of launching a mortar attack against the Japanese Embassy in Jakarta in May 1986. Around the same time that the embassy was attacked, the U.S. Embassy in the Indonesian capital was also targeted by a mortar attack.

For Shirosaki’s trial, the court summoned 11 Indonesians as witnesses and chose two persons as interpreters. Since some translations by one of the interpreters were extremely short, the court came to doubt their accuracy and had a third interpreter evaluate them. The evaluation found some 200 errors and omissions regarding the testimony of three Indonesians given on Sept. 29 and 30.

For example, the year 1983 mentioned by an Indonesian police officer was found to have been translated as 1985. Another statement by the officer, that “I did not give heed to it,” was found to have been changed into “I do not remember it.” A hotel employee from Jakarta who was asked to describe the conditions of a room at the hotel replied there was usually both an electric pot and a refrigerator in the room, but the statement was translated as “there was a pot for drinking water.” The presiding judge concluded that the interpreter failed to correctly grasp the meaning of some statements and used rough translations that lacked accuracy.

Apparently the translation problems were not serious enough to change the outcome of the trial. The court in late November found Shirosaki guilty of launching two home-made mortar shells at the Japanese Embassy, rejecting his argument that he was in Lebanon at the time of the attack and giving him 12 years in prison. Shirosaki was one of six Japanese Red Army members released by the Japanese government in 1977 in exchange for the lives of passengers of a Japan Airlines plane hijacked and forced to land in Dhaka by the extremist group. He was captured in 1996 in Nepal and given a 30-year prison sentence in the United States for the 1986 mortar attack against the U.S. Embassy. He was released last year and was transferred to Japan, where he was arrested upon his arrival.

The court’s decision to appoint a new interpreter to check the quality of the translation was appropriate. Otherwise, the trustworthiness of the trial could have been questioned. Although the translation errors did not change the course of this particular case, judges, prosecutors, lawyers and the public should keep in mind that bad translations can distort decisions by judges on facts at issue and influence their assessment of the case before them, possibly leading them to hand down a false judgment. Even if a translation is technically correct, the choice of words by an interpreter can affect the impression of the defendant held by lay judges who, unlike professional judges, may not be accustomed to looking at facts alone and could be influenced by the nuance of words. Shirosaki had a lay judge trial.

As of April, 3,840 people covering 61 languages were registered as court interpreters in Japan. It is standard practice for courts to select interpreters after interviewing them. While there are many interpreters of major languages such as English, there is an acute shortage of interpreters in languages of Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

About 30 years ago, the Supreme Court created handbooks for interpreting at trials covering major languages. It is also holding workshops for court interpreters specializing in minor languages. The Japan Law Foundation, established in 1998 by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, the Japanese Institute of Certified Public Accountants and several other organizations, held workshops for court interpreters ahead of the introduction the lay judge system in 2009. The Japan Law Interpreter Association, a private organization, began giving a qualification test for court interpreters in 2010.

But currently there is no state examination for court interpreters. Neither is there a standard for the language ability of such people. Some countries have specific laws concerning qualifications for court translators, including the requirement of passing a state exam.

Given the complexity of trial procedures and the diverse nationalities of foreigners living in or visiting Japan, holding workshops isn’t enough to ensure sufficient quality of court interpreters. The Supreme Court, the JFBA, the government and the Diet should discuss introducing a system to publicly certify court interpreters through state examinations or other means. If a false conviction occurs as a result of an incorrect translation, the damage will be irreparable.