Courts are supposed to be bastions of justice. But equal justice may be thwarted for some defendants owing to language barriers.
Despite all the various training seminars and guide books preparing newly registered court interpreters for the job, the current pool of interpreters are not sufficiently skilled to speak for defendants and may introduce miscommunications during trials, according to veterans in the field.
Of 59,462 defendants who received verdicts from district courts or summary courts in 2015, 2,694 were foreign nationals from 73 different countries who required translators to speak on their behalf during trials, the Supreme Court figures show. The law requires courts to hire and prepare translators for defendants who are not fluent in Japanese, at no cost to the accused.
As of April 2016, close to 3,840 available court interpreters were registered nationwide at courts, providing translations in 61 languages to and from Japanese.
Haeok Chung, an Osaka-based court interpreter with more than 20 years of experience, known for her book “Hotei Tsuyakunin” (“Court Interpreter”) published in 2015, claims that translators are insufficiently compensated given the high-level skills required for the job. As a result, there is little incentive for court interpreters to undergo professional development to improve their existing skills.
“If they are not able to make a living, it’s unavoidable” that they take on other jobs, said Chung. Courts do not disclose how much court-appointed interpreters are paid.
To supplement her income, Chung also teaches Korean as a high school teacher.
Chung stressed that while becoming a court interpreter is not hard, performing at a high level on the job is no easy task. On top of requisite legal knowledge and language skills, interpreters also need mental discipline to be able to maintain a neutral stand, she said.
While there are many who are fluent in multiple languages, “you have to have a specific personality to work properly as a court interpreter,” Chung said. “If you are too sympathetic toward other people,” you should rethink accepting the job, she added.
In 2016, several misinterpretations were found during the trial at the Tokyo District Court of Japanese Red Army member Tsutomu Shirosaki, then 68, who was later found guilty of launching a mortar attack against the Japanese Embassy in Jakarta in May 1986.
According to an Asahi Shimbun report, during the trial, the court summoned 11 Indonesians who testified as witnesses using two interpreters. Since there were discrepancies in the lengths when comparing the two translations, the court had doubts about their accuracy and brought on a third interpreter to weigh in. The third-party evaluation found close to 200 errors and omissions in the translated testimonies of three Indonesians given on Sept. 29 and 30.
Chung said the problems flagged by the court are only the tip of the iceberg.
“It has been debated for a long time that a public license is necessary and that there have been many misinterpretations,” said Chung.
The Japan Law Interpreter Association, a nonprofit organization launched in 2009, stresses the need for a public or private licensing system for legal translators, including court interpreters.
The organization annually conducts its own examinations to assess the skills of the law interpreters, whose language abilities span various levels. About 70 applicants take the exam every year.
“It’s true that skills vary among each interpreter. Not all interpreters are unskilled, but there is a problem in the system that operates them,” said Roman Amami, who was the former head of the association and has translated Chinese to and from Japanese in court since 1993.
“There is no guarantee for the amount of work the interpreters get and how much they will be rewarded,” she said.
Amami said that because of such a system, many skilled translators would rather pursue stints in nonjudicial fields, and most interpreters who are less skilled take up legal work on the side.
“That’s why, whether it’s a public license or a private license, we’d like to see that it’s made mandatory to have a license for interpreters to work in courts,” said Amami, explaining that public licenses are required to work as legal interpreters in the United States as well as in some European countries.
The organization is accepting applications for its next exam to be held in October, and also conducts training courses with help from lawyers from Kanae International Law Office and others that have expertise in international cases.
On top of issuing licenses and conducting professional training, JLIA also thinks ethics should be taught to legal interpreters.
“It would require some time to make licenses a requirement. But first of all, ethics should be instilled” in law interpreters, said Hiroaki Sugiyama, a lawyer at Kanae International Law Office.
“It’s questionable whether all law interpreters are providing fair translations. If everyone followed an ethics code, there wouldn’t be a problem, but some of them give inappropriate translations while knowing they lack ability,” said Sugiyama.
Sugiyama said some interpreters, like in the trial of Tsutomu Shirosaki, intentionally provide translations that would benefit prosecutors, putting their thumbs on the scale so the prosecution can win more cases in court.
“To develop ethics, we must research the situations in other countries, and present the results as an example” to the government, said Masanari Aoto, a lawyer also involved in JLIA, which will soon launch a study group on legal ethics.
“(Ethics) would include how one must prepare to become a law interpreter, and things they should avoid. They must be developed for interpreters to give fair translations,” he said.
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