Problems with Japan’s Court Translators

A very informative key-note speech was given at the recent 2012 JALT Pan-Sig conference by Dr.Hiromi Nagao about the need for reform in the Japanese court translation system.

Dr.Nagao shared her personal frustrating experiences as a court translator and shared some pivotal case studies of cases where errors in translation resulted in unnecessary jail sentences or other problems in sentencing that may have been avoided if the translators had kept to a higher moral standard.

There were a few cases she discussed from her first hand knowledge or research, the most shocking of which is the “Melbourne incident” which refers to a case in 2002 of a small group of naive Japanese tourists being duped on the way to Melbourne, Australia into changing their suitcases for ones that were filled with heroine when they did a stop-over in KL. The cases were discovered at the airport in Australia and although the travelers tried to explain their story, there were many oversimplification mistakes or unclear answers or directives given by the court translators which led to their guilty prosecution and sentencing to over 10 years in jail. Dr.Nagao spoke of listening to the transcripts of the interviews with the translators and pointed out many of the mistakes they made. The reason to bring up this case, however, was not to lay blame but to point out how difficult court translation is, even in countries like Australia where translators must qualify for certification each year and there is often a moderator watching proceedings.

In contrast, the situation in Japanese courts for non-Japanese speakers is much more hit and miss as there are no qualifications or certifications or mediations to check the validity of translations even in criminal cases where the penalties for guilt are severe. Dr.Nagao talked of the need for humility and an effort to put “ethics” before making assumptions in translation as there are many cultural implications of translating meaning across Japanese and English.

Dr.Nagao  gave examples of what it means to work at a high ethical or moral standard while translating. She referred to a case where she was doing court translation for an accused Nigerian man whom she had trouble understanding in English, so when she was at a loss, she felt it important to put into the court transcripts exactly what she heard but could not translate in order to let the judge ask clarification questions. She did this instead of making “guesses” at what he was saying as any translation error could end up being important factors in the court judgement (as was the case in the Melbourne incident). Acting in this humble way as a translator is what she referred to as a means of raising the level of the moral or ethical standard of court translation.

Of the main points of translation, the key points are: sound knowledge, showing the basic skill of understanding each spoken language; technical interpreting skills such as note-taking and organizing information to be able to reproduce the same meaning after 30 minutes; as well as a good cultural understanding which includes being aware of differences in country specific idioms and nuance. Dr.Nagao’s current position is at the Hiroshima Jogakuin University where she hopes to start a translation course for her students. I hope many other experts in the field of translation will follow her lead and create a movement for university training courses which may lead to certification and a higher moral standard of translation in the courts in Japan.


Writing about Hiroshima for over twenty years. Co-founded GetHiroshima in 1999 and founded the sustainability-focused InboundAmbassador business in 2019. Monthly CleanUp and Seeking Sustainability event organizer, guide workshop facilitator, online content creator and tourism destination consultant. Passionate about promoting solutions in Japan for people and the planet.