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International Law

Japanese trial of claimed Somali pirates raises interpretation issues

Posted Mar 20, 2013 4:49 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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When defendants speak Arabic, Chinese, English, Hebrew, Korean, Swahili or Tagalog, interpreters in Japan's courts are ready to help them understand and be understood.

But a lack of Somali interpreters among the 4,067 listed in a directory kept by the court system has posed a problem as Japan tried four accused pirates arrested on March 6, 2011 by the U.S. Navy and charged with attempting to hijack a Japanese company's oil tanker, the Japan Times reports.

In an unusual arrangement, the proceedings have been translated into English by one interpreter and then translated into Somali by another. This arrangement has caused concern for a number of reasons, as the lengthy article explains.

In addition to the increased potential for interpretation errors that the dual translation process obviously entails, the interpreter shortage has also required the same two individuals to translate for both the government and the defense. Plus, a lack of recognized accreditation standards for interpreters generally has elicited calls for a more stringent system of qualification.

Lawyers for the defendants—three of whom have already been found guilty—are arguing on appeal to the Tokyo High Court that interpretation problems, as well as a lack of access to the claimed crime scene and an inability to call far-distant witnesses, have prevented their clients from getting a fair trial.

“Errors made by the court interpreter could have a grave and tremendous impact on the outcome of a trial," attorney Yumiko Terada of the Osaka-based Asunaro Law Office told the publication.

Terada, who serves on a Japan Federation of Bar Associations committee that is working to draft standards for court interpreters, said a law requiring interpreters for defendants "means they should be skilled."

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