Harry Potter: Lost in Translation

At the Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, performers portray French witches from the Beauxbatons Academy of Magic.

Universal Studios announced in early December its plans to add a Harry Potter section to its Los Angeles theme park, in a move that further strengthens the position of J.K. Rowling’s franchise worldwide. The park will supplement and likely resemble the one in Orlando, which features a replica of Hogwarts Castle, roller coaster rides, and Harry Potter-themed restaurants.1

Perhaps the more globally relevant news is speculation that NBCUniversal is considering opening up Harry Potter attractions at its theme parks in Japan, Singapore, and Spain.1 These parks are not likely to be designed in the same way as the Los Angeles or Orlando attractions, but rather will be defined by their local communities’ cultures and reactions to Rowling’s work. Due to the nature of the translations of the text from English to other languages, such differences in meaning and reception are not trivial. Analyzing the many ways through which Harry Potter’s influence has expanded to locations throughout the world, including theme parks, gives us a unique perspective on foreign cultures and international relations.

The books have broken sales records around the world, with over 450 million copies translated into 70 languages.2 But despite this, can we refer to the Harry Potter series as a truly “global” phenomenon? Jackson and Mandaville don’t think so, opting instead to refer to it as a “glocal” franchise, the product of global distribution and translation into local contexts. Translators must decide whether they will closely follow the original text or take liberties so that the translated texts are more closely targeted to the intended audience. Every translation inevitably contains a balance of these two extremes, such that the translated text acquires a meaning that is unique to its local culture. The Simplified Chinese translation turns the broom-mounted sport of Quidditch to baseball, due to baseball’s popularity in Taiwan. The Hindi translator had a hard time describing the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which is based on the English boarding school system. And even though it is not a translation to a foreign language, the American edition features alterations, such as changing the title from “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, that some say threaten to compromise the “British-ness” of Rowling’s work.3

Despite its worldwide geographic reach, the Harry Potter experience has been “fractured” through local translation. But there are also cases in which the series is received differently, not through differences in translation, but rather through differences in local culture. In analyzing Harry Potter’s reception in Sweden and Turkey, Towns and Rumelili found that the “foreignness” of the series, viewed in relation to locally familiar phenomena, allows for an analysis of the relationship between national identities. In Sweden, the series is viewed as rooted in Western culture, which Swedish readers can relate to. However, certain aspects of the book, particularly class hierarchy and male dominance, are seen as depictions of “British conservatism” and foreign to Sweden’s more egalitarian society. In Turkey, Harry Potter is both admired and mocked, depending on which aspects of the Western world are viewed as favorable or unfavorable. In contrast to the rest of the Middle East, Turkey is often seen as more modern and Western, but Turkey itself is not always considered to be part of the West. As such, “The foreignness of Harry Potter is negated and de-emphasized when Turkey is to be depicted as Western, and pronounced when the West is to be criticized and ridiculed.”4

Harry Potter books on sale in Beijing

Another study, however, found that while there are instances of diverging receptions in different nations, the overall fandom to the series is actually quite similar. Schmid and Klimmt, for example, found that Mexican fans were more likely than German fans to find the Harry Potter character to be sociable.  Mexico has a more “collectivistic” culture than Germany’s “individualistic” culture, they say. The collectivist fans from Mexico relate to the character in ways that are compatible with their own culture’s norms, including sociability. At the same time, however, Schmid and Klimmt note that the development of their fandom and parasocial (or one-sided) relationships (PSRs) with the series were affected by similar factors, such as social attraction.5

Consumers can develop their relationship with the series through various means. While most research on Harry Potter and its international reception focuses on the printed books, the broader pop culture has experienced PSRs developed with television personalities, celebrities, and professional athletes. For fantasy franchises like Harry Potter, theme parks undoubtedly play a significant role in the formation of PSRs, and it’s up to NBCUniversal to understand the ways their products are received by various communities. Failure to do so could compromise the potential to reap profits.

Perhaps NBCUniversal has a lot to learn from its rival, Walt Disney. With theme parks and resorts in Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, Disney has had to cater to diverse cultures while globally marketing the brand. Indeed, such “glocalization” has not taken place without its difficulties, particularly with respect to Disneyland Paris. Originally named Euro Disney Resort when it opened in 1992, the park lost nearly $1 billion in its first 18 months of operation. The losses were attributed to Disney’s inadequate understanding of Europeans’ vacation habits in contrast to American culture, along with a park design that did not sufficiently satisfy the demands of the Parisian market. Despite a growing movement among other exporting firms towards adapting products to the customs of foreign consumers, Euro Disney retained American standards of dress, behavior, and morality. It certainly does not help that the French generally resent American influences and may have regarded Euro Disney as a potential encroachment upon French culture.6

With these lessons in mind, NBCUniversal could be better informed as it considers expanding its Harry Potter attractions to its non-US theme parks. It faces the challenge of tailoring its park designs to the local culture, while at the same time maintaining a cohesive worldwide image of the series. Fortunately, studies have shown that consumers spanning various cultures and age groups are already attracted to Harry Potter, making the process of “glocalization” much easier. Moreover, Harry Potter’s British origins reduce the risk of being perceived as a symbol of purely American influence.


  1. Lauren A.E. Schuker, “Second ‘Harry Potter’ Park Planned,” The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2011
  2. “Harry Potter,” The New York Times, last modified July 18, 2011, http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/complete_coverage/harry_potter/index.html
  3. Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Peter Mandaville, “Glocal Hero: Harry Potter Abroad,” in Harry Potter and International Relations, ed. Daniel H. Nexon and Iver B. Neumann (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 45-59.
  4. Ann Towns and Bahar Rumelili, “Foreign Yet Familiar: International Politics and the Reception of Potter in Turkey and Sweden,” in Harry Potter and International Relations, ed. Daniel H. Nexon and Iver B. Neumann (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 61-77.
  5. Hannah Schmid and Christoph Klimmt, “A magically nice guy: Parasocial relationships with Harry Potter across different cultures,” International Communication Gazette, 73, no. 3 (2011): 252-269
  6. Earl P. Spencer, “Euro Disney: What Happened? What Next?” Journal of International Marketing, 3, no. 3 (1995): 103-114
  7. Scott Smith, “Triwizard Spirit Rally: Beauxbatons Academy,” flickr, uploaded September 10, 2010, http://www.flickr.com/photos/scottrsmith/5041166185/
  8. Kurt Groetsch, “Harry Potter mania in Beijing,” flickr, uploaded July 17, 2005, http://www.flickr.com/photos/oldtasty/26488463/

Edgar Pal is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in economics and public policy. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the University of Chicago chapter of The Triple Helix Online. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter. Join us on Facebook.