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Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Court interpreters unsung but growing in importance
OSAKA — With an increasing number of foreign nationals being involved in criminal trials, the role of court interpreters has become even more important in recent years.
Yet unlike lay judges, court interpreters are not protected under any legally defined status and sometimes face situations in which they misinterpret or are resented by the defendant. Remuneration, ill-defined, is often as poor as that paid for part-time jobs, depending on the length and complexity of a trial.
Ryoji Kito, 41, is among the roughly 4,000 court interpreter candidates approved and registered with district courts nationwide as of April 1. Having majored in the Persian language at a university and living for a short while in Iran, Kito is a skilled court interpreter with about 20 years of experience.
During a trial at the Osaka District Court in mid-May, Kito interpreted for an Iranian who had been indicted for violating the stimulants control law.
Not comprehending a single word of Japanese, the man stared anxiously neither at the prosecutors nor his defense lawyer, but at Kito.
Occasionally turning to a file filled with self-prepared reference materials, including a conversion chart showing the Iranian and Japanese calendars, Kito interpreted in fluent Farsi and ensured that he spoke loud enough for the defendant to hear him through the simultaneous interpretation headset.
As the hearing proceeded, the defendant appeared a little more relaxed, even smiling at one point when answering a question through Kito's interpretation.
When the hourlong court session ended, the Iranian approached Kito and thanked him.
Among defendants who were given a ruling in district and summary courts in 2010, one in every 21 used an interpreter. The number of nationalities involved totaled 75, compared with 35 in 1989.
While a total of 61 languages are covered by the 4,000 registered court interpreters, there is still a shortage, especially in the case of some languages.
In addition, the presence of qualified court interpreters has also become more important given the introduction of the lay judge system, legal experts said. Ordinary Japanese who have never set foot abroad may be called on to serve in a lay judge trial involving a foreign defendant.
"The role of court interpreters is becoming increasingly important and yet there is little opportunity for interpreters to make their voices heard with regard to the work conditions," said Osaka University professor Mamoru Tsuda, who also works as a court interpreter.
"In the case of lay judge trials, sessions are held day after day and this puts a huge burden on the interpreters," Tsuda said.
Under the current pay system, few can depend solely on court interpretation work as a profession. "There is no breakdown of the payment, so I don't really know," Kito said.
Contrary to the saying that skills are a lifelong benefit to their possessor, Kito half-jokingly said that serving as a court interpreter is more like ruining oneself with one's skills.
So what keeps him going? "It's simply because I enjoy doing it," Kito said. "I shiver (with delight) when I manage to make the interpretation sound smooth and natural."
As an interpreter, he is simply happy to be able to help facilitate communication among people. He is based in Osaka, but Kito said he has interpreted at trials in Kyoto, Shiga and as far away as Nagasaki.
For now, at least, the "passion" of these court interpreters plays an important part in ensuring that the fundamental right to a fair trial, as guaranteed under the Constitution, is not neglected even when the defendant is a foreigner.