Trial interpreters urge certification

Fear is foreign defendants' cases get lost in translation


As the courts prepare to let citizens join with judges in trying accused criminals, legal experts are calling for improving the training and status of court interpreters.

They claim court interpretation should become a profession that requires public certification to help secure fairer trials when the lay judge system debuts in May.

“Interpreters must have an official training period just as legal professionals have,” said Hiromi Nagao, a Kobe College professor who specializes in translation issues.

One of the positive changes expected from the lay judge system is a greater emphasis on oral proceedings instead of documents to make trials easier for the public to understand.

Under the lay judge system, six citizens will sit with three professional judges in trials involving heinous crimes. They will weigh the evidence, issue a verdict, and, when appropriate, mete out sentences based on a majority vote.

For court interpreters, however, the greater use of oral proceedings will make their jobs tougher, with more things to interpret without being able to predict what’s coming.

Because of this, it will be crucial for interpreters to improve their skills, said Nagao, who has been a court interpreter for 25 years.

Interpreters play a vital role in criminal trials involving foreign defendants not fluent in Japanese. The law stipulates that the court is required to hire a translator proficient in the language used by the parties involved.

According to Supreme Court data, 7,195 out of the 89,016 people convicted in 2006 — or one out of every 12 — were foreigners who needed interpreters for trials.

Among them, 39.4 percent needed Chinese interpretation, 12.8 percent Korean, 8.3 percent Filipino, 7.4 percent Portuguese and 5.4 percent Thai, the data show. Those needing English interpretation ranked eighth, at 3.2 percent. 2006 saw 42 languages used for people from 71 countries and regions.

As of April 2007, the Supreme Court had a list of 3,903 designated interpreters on standby. But being listed as one doesn’t mean one is qualified because there is no professional title or qualified status.

This means interpreters’ skills vary widely. Some are trained or experienced professional conference interpreters, while others are simply fluent in a given language and want to make use of their skills. Others are registered merely because of the rarity of their language.

Becoming a court interpreter is as simple as approaching a local district court and observing a case, then undergoing an interview to determine language skills and background.

Once the court deems someone worthy of acting as an interpreter, training is mostly on the job. Beginners are usually assigned simple cases, including those involving visa issues. Depending on their progress, the court will assign them more complicated cases.

Usually, one interpreter will be assigned per case, with translation carried out immediately after each question and reply. Interpreters, like witnesses, take an oath of honesty each time, promising to perform their jobs faithfully.

People in the interpretation industry and in legal circles, however, are concerned that the lack of proper certification criteria for court interpreters could endanger the right to a fair trial.

Chang Hak Ryun, a lawyer in Tokyo who has represented several foreign clients, said there have been times when he felt the court-appointed interpreter lacked the skills to accurately convey his clients’ words to the court.

“When I asked the same thing in a very different way and got different answers, I suspected there was something lost in the translation, and I questioned the interpretation,” he said.

Interpreters have seen similar problems. Kousei Hou, a veteran Chinese translator in the Kanto region who has worked court cases for 14 years, said she has observed cases where the interpretation was clearly wrong.

“It’s hard for me to criticize others in the same industry, but when I saw what was happening, I was worried about the human rights of the defendants,” she said. “Even though interpreters may not mean it, I think they are causing problems. . . . But the court doesn’t have a function for checking such errors.”

Despite the criticism, judges claim the court system has ways to ensure the proceedings are accurately conveyed.

The Supreme Court said it extends support to the interpreters by publishing trial procedure manuals in various languages. It also occasionally organizes followup seminars so they can practice their skills.

Court officials also say only experienced interpreters are assigned to cases involving complicated issues, procedures or large numbers of witnesses.

In addition, judges insist that even though they do not comprehend a foreign language, they claim they can recognize whether a foreign defendant is following the proceedings.

“When we look at the defendant, we can see whether (the accused) is having difficulties understanding what is being said. In that case, we ask the parties to rephrase the question,” said Judge Hitoshi Murase of the Tokyo District Court, who has sat through many cases involving foreign defendants.

Proceedings with translators are also taped. If a problem arises and a claim is made, the court can always go back to confirm the translation to avoid errors, he said.

“In any translation, we can’t expect things to be interpreted precisely 100 percent due to the nature of languages, but the most important thing is that the essential part of the process is conveyed,” he said.

Nagao of Kobe College disagreed. She said the judges’ naivete stems from the fact that courts have never had to seriously deal with a wrongful conviction caused by misinterpretation.

The solution, she said, is to give the position of court interpreter professional status.

“Court interpreters need to have a status that is equal to court clerks or stenographers,” Nagao said. “Some people become court interpreters with the sense that they are volunteering, but court interpreters must be professionals. They are being paid and they need to take responsibility for their work.”

Court interpreters are paid an average of ¥15,000 an hour, but payment is left to the judge and there is no rule for determining compensation, regardless of skill.

Most importantly, Nagao said, court interpreters must maintain their neutrality and know legal terminology and procedures as well as lawyers because that knowledge influences the words they use.

“Small issues can be extremely important in a case where there are conflicts of interest. But if the interpreter doesn’t understand that, the translation becomes very inconsistent,” she said.

For example, the different nuances of the words “rob,” “take” and “steal” will lead to different sentences, and those are often used in lawyers’ arguments. But if the interpreter lacks a good knowledge of the legal process and fails to understand why a question is being cast in a certain way, it could lead to different consequences, she said.

“What’s really important is actually how much you understand what is being said in Japanese,” Nagao said.

In preparation for the lay judge system, courts have held mock trials using interpreters. One thing officials said they realized is that more interpreters will be needed per case because the amount of work will rise, proceedings will be held daily, and the court and interpreters will have to meet more to decide on things.

Currently, a group of lawyers and interpreters, including Nagao, is working to compile a plan to create a third party that can provide education and training for potential court interpreters and certify them as professionals. They are seeking to compile the plan within a year, she said.

“Because of the introduction of the lay judge system, finally, we’re seeing signs that legal circles are paying more attention to the role of court interpreters. This is our chance,” Nagao said.