Court interpreters participating in lay judge trials with foreign defendants are struggling with increases in the volumes of written evidence and rapid questioning of witnesses and defendants.

A defendant recently appealed a ruling at the Osaka District Court, saying the interpreter made translation mistakes, and moves have emerged to introduce an independent qualification for court interpreters to improve their abilities. At present, there is no such national qualification.

A woman in her 40s who has acted as an interpreter at trials in the metropolitan area for more than a dozen years observed for the first time proceedings at a lay judge trial over four consecutive days last November, and sighed as volumes of written evidence were read out and witnesses and the defendant were subjected to rapid-fire examination. Another veteran female interpreter was in charge.

Public trials with judges alone are held at intervals, but those in which lay judges participate last from morning to evening each day. “At night, the interpreter is required to translate written documents. I thought the interpreter was in a very grinding situation,” the woman said.

She herself is scheduled to be in charge of interpretation at a trial sometime this year. “Accumulated fatigue can lead to translation errors. I’m hoping for a nationwide setup to support trials with more than two interpreters,” she said.

A Kyodo News tally showed foreigners were involved in about 10 percent of some 650 lay judge trials concluded to date.

A lawyer for a German woman who was given a prison term at the Osaka District Court for violation of the Drug Control Law appealed the ruling, citing shortcomings by the interpreter.

A scholar’s written opinion that in long statements, more than 60 percent of the contents were either mistranslated or dropped in translation was adopted as evidence, and now the issue is being deliberated at the Osaka High Court.

At the May trial of a Chinese man in the Yamaguchi District Court with lay judges participating, confusion occurred over an interpretation, and deliberations were suspended for about 10 minutes.

While problems involving court interpreters continue, moves to address the situation are emerging. Since last August, a group of lawyers and scholars in Osaka has been giving seminars nationwide for court interpreters to gain the requisite knowledge and techniques. There have also been mock trials, and thus far, about 450 people have taken part.

The Japan Law Interpret Association, a group of court interpreters and judiciary-related people, plans to carry out its own qualification examination in November.

Chairman Roman Amami said: “If interpreters’ ability is known objectively, their interpretation levels will go up. We’d also like to respond to less widely used languages.”

According to the Supreme Court’s count, about 4,000 foreign defendants were supported by interpreters across the country last year, and 4,076 interpreter candidates for 58 languages were listed by the court as of April 1.

If selected as interpreters, travel expenses and daily allowances are provided, as well as pay depending on the language and factual background.

Immediately before the lay judge system took effect in May last year, more than 10 district courts advertised on their home pages for court interpreters, chiefly for less widely used languages.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.