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Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2005

Interpretation mistakes marring justice in Japan's courts

Staff writer

In June 2003, British national Nicholas Baker was sentenced to a 14-year prison sentence for drug smuggling.

During the trial at the Chiba District Court, Baker pleaded innocent and his lawyers argued repeatedly there was doubt over the accuracy of the interpretation.

And according to Makiko Mizuno, there were many gaps in the interpretation during Baker's district court hearings.

At a symposium Sunday, Baker's case was offered as an example of the problems with courtroom interpretation in Japan.

Mizuno, an associate professor of human society at Senri Kinran University, was asked by Baker's supporters and lawyers to evaluate the interpretation during his trial.

Comparing the transcripts of Baker's testimony and the interpreter's words, Mizuno said it was obvious the interpretation wasn't going well.

One of the challenges of translating Baker's words, Mizuno pointed out, was his heavy Cockney accent, which meant he dropped his h's and t's and the "th" sounded more like "p." "Bottle" would sound like "bo'le" and "water" could be heard as "wa'er," she said.

In Baker's case, when the court asked him whether the bag containing the drugs was his, he answered "It ain't mine." The interpreter translated it as "I don't mind." When Baker said he had antibiotics, the interpreter said he had "drugs banned by Japan."

Mizuno's evaluation was offered to the high court for Baker's appellate trial. The ruling on his appeal is to be handed down Thursday.

At the symposium, Mizuno stressed Japan still lacks a proper system for courtroom interpreting. In the United States, she explained, a certificate is needed to qualify as a courtroom interpreter for both federal and state courts.

But not in Japan, where interpreting skills are still determined by how high your TOEIC score is or whether you passed the highest level of Eiken, an English proficiency test, Mizuno said.

"There is still an idea that being bilingual means you can interpret," she said.

Baker's lawyer, Shunji Miyake, explained at the symposium how difficult it is for the defense to argue about interpretation conducted during police interrogation because no tape or video recordings are made. All that exists is a written confession, which Miyake pointed out does not always record the truth.

The Chiba District Court, however, ruled that the confession record was properly shown and read to Baker and he signed it. The court added there is no room for doubt over the interpretation during the interrogations because the interpreters all had a certain level of English skill, listing their TOEIC scores, experience abroad and other English test certificates.

Another panelist, Risa Kumano, also a professional interpreter and supporter of Baker, said at the symposium this ruling is representative of the lack of understanding the courts and police have toward interpretation.

To prevent misinterpretation, and even worse, false accusations, panelists stressed the need for the establishment of a firm system for legal interpretation. Participants at the symposium, including interpreters, threw around ideas including a "check interpreter system" in which a third person would sit in on trials to ensure no mistakes are made.

Kumano also stressed there must be a moral standard for interpreters, meaning those who know they are doing a poor job should take some kind of action, such as resigning their position.

"A courtroom interpreter must keep in mind that (he or she) has a heavy responsibility that could possibly change the future for the accused," Kumano said.

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The Japan Times

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