A judge asks a Vietnamese defendant accused of breaking the Immigration Control Law whether the written indictment is correct. A court interpreter conveys the question to him in Vietnamese, using a microphone.
“Everything is correct,” he responds at the first hearing of his trial at the Sapporo District Court in November, using an earpiece.
That’s a scene playing out more and more across Japan as court cases involving foreign defendants grow hand in hand with Japan’s expanding foreign population.
The criminal code stipulates that a court interpreter must be provided for defendants who do not understand Japanese. The interpreter also translates their indictments and other related documents beforehand.
Those who wish to become court interpreters undergo screenings that include an interview with a judge at each district court where they intend to work before they can be registered.
In the past nine years, however, the number available for foreign defendants and witnesses has fallen by over 10 percent, due partly to the demanding workload and low pay.
There were 3,905 foreign defendants in need of an interpreter who were handed down a ruling at district and summary courts in 2019, 1.7 times the figure from six years before. Most of them were charged with theft and violations of the immigration and refugees law. At the same time, there were 3,586 court interpreters covering 61 languages as of April 2019, down from 4,076 interpreters in 2010.
Rika Yoshida, a lecturer at Rikkyo University who has worked as a Spanish court interpreter, points out there is a higher risk of mistakes when you have to work many hours at a time.
“Normally, there are several people who work as interpreters in (business) conferences. But in a courtroom, there is only one,” Yoshida said. “After long periods of interpreting, your ears start to buzz, and there is an increased risk of simple mistakes, such as mix-ups between yen and dollars.”
In a survey of about 50 interpreters by University of Shizuoka professor Sachi Takahata in 2017, about 60 percent said they had experienced cases in which they nearly mistranslated what was being said in the courtroom. Many urged lawyers, prosecutors and judges to speak using simpler Japanese.
The survey also showed that around 60 percent were dissatisfied with their pay, saying it was low compared to the workload or that the standards for calculating it were unclear.
The Supreme Court does not disclose how much courtroom interpreters are paid. But Takahata, who has worked as a Filipino interpreter for over 25 years, says that around an hour of interpretation work earns about ¥15,000.
But there is no compensation for the preparation work, such as translating things like indictments and summaries of opening statements, which can take four or five hours. In addition, there is no guarantee that interpreters can find regular work.
Critics point out the need to offer better pay and training sessions to attract more interpreters and keep their numbers in line with the rise in foreign defendants.
“Court translators don’t just need to understand foreign languages, they also have to have legal knowledge. Because translators know that mistranslations can lead to harsher sentences, they have a heavy responsibility,” Takahata said.
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