Harry Potter and the Castle of Poudlard: Cultural and language competency in the legal world


by Jaimie Lerner   |   Michigan Bar Journal


When reading Harry Potter in French, American audiences may be surprised to learn that the magic castle of Hogwarts has been translated to “Poudlard”—or lice bacon.1 Readers in Hebrew will find that Christmas melodies about hippogriffs have been altered to the tune of a Chanukah song.2 Brazilian Portuguese Potter fans, on the other hand, know the house of Hufflepuff as “Lufa-lufa.”3

Available in more 60 languages worldwide, Harry Potter translators have reckoned not only with literal translations, but also cultural interpretations.4 This is because international readers need language to create the same connotations and societal resonance as the original words do in English. Language and culture are intertwined in a way that cannot be divided — not even for the phenomenon that is Harry Potter. Yet the legal world’s understanding of the significant impact of language and culture in cases is grievously lacking.

Today in the United States, nearly 68 million people speak a language other than English at home.5 These are your current and future clients, each with their own linguistic and cultural differences. For a successful client-centered relationship,6 it is essential to understand how this diversity impacts people in the American legal system and the protections available to them.7


Our role as advocates is building a bridge between clients and the American legal system — creating a path to recognize linguistic and cultural diversity. Because of this, we need to change the dialogue from using competent translators to instead being guided by “cultural brokers.”8 Interpreters, attorneys, and judges need to be trained to identify when word-for-word translation by itself is not enough to convey accurate meaning.

You say Ingles, I say English

Interpretation9 itself is rife with cultural components and layers of complications. Think of a child’s game of telephone, where a sentence is passed down from player to player until the result is a muddled — and often hilarious — departure from the original phrase. Skilled interpreters strive to avoid these deviations in meaning, but cultural components can cause roadblocks.

Take the idiom “she has her head in the clouds,” meaning she is daydreaming or distracted. Idioms change based on language and culture; in French, the way to describe the same idea is “elle est dans la lune” or “she is in the moon.” When working with an interpreter, try to avoid idioms, colloquialisms, and overly complicated sentences with jargon. Use simple, clear language and break up conversation into about two sentences at a time.

Another consideration is whether interpretation should be word-for-word or based on the meaning of a phrase. Of course, precise translations are impossible. A common question in court proceedings is “Do you have any siblings?” But in Spanish, the word “siblings” (“hermanos”) is the same as the word for “brothers” while the word “sisters” (“hermanas”) has a different translation. An attorney attuned to this linguistic difference will ask “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” to preempt confusion.

But a different scenario often plays out. A judge asks if a person has any siblings and the witness understands the question as, “Do you have any brothers?” She answers honestly — no. Then she later testifies that a gang threatened her sister, and the judge becomes suspicious; he now believes the witness is lying to him. Of course, there is nothing on the record to prove otherwise — “[c]ourt stenographers write down only what’s translated by the interpreter. If that person mistranslates or if portions of the call get dropped, what’s said in the original language isn’t legally part of the record.”10

That is why interpretation misunderstandings need to be caught and objected to in real time: there is no way to verify them later. Having an individual fluent in both English and a client’s native language in court can alert you of interpretation errors during testimony.

Nonverbal Communication Confusion

Nonverbal communication requires yet another layer of translation that is essential to any effective relationship. Consider the role of body language, facial expressions, and eye contact. Imagine speaking with a client; her voice is soft, and she avoids looking at you. Does she appear dishonest? Untrustworthy? Withdrawn? How we interpret nonverbal communication is rooted in our own cultural bias.11

In the United States, this behavior — especially direct eye contact — affects whether we perceive a person as honest or dishonest.12 Yet, some East Asian cultures perceive a person to be “angrier, unapproachable, and unpleasant when making eye contact.”13 These contradictory cultural norms can cause clients to experience significant bias in the American legal system. In other words, we have a breakdown in cultural communication.14 With this in mind, advocates can put information regarding non-linguistic cues in the record, preempting potential credibility issues.

Time is a Construct

Physicists say time is an illusion. Entrepreneurs say time is money. Immigration attorneys should say that time is a social construct.

Time-related cultural bias must be acknowledged for effective advocacy. American culture is predominantly monochronic — time is viewed as rigid, fixed, and chronological.15 In contrast, for many cultures, time is polychronic — fluid and less tangible.16 Latin American society, for instance, is primarily polychronic, and clients from this region likely emphasize how events affect relationships while placing less value on specific dates or rigid timelines.17 A person’s “time culture” influences not only their emphasis of events, but also memory, as “the flow of time is viewed as a sort of circle, with the past, present, and future all interrelated.”18

The predicament is that the American legal system places fundamental significance on the timeline and procedural history of a case. Failure to remember dates or the order of events is considered a credibility issue. And yet it is often a cultural dispute. By demanding American time norms — our cultural biases — we create tension with people from polychronic societies.19 This can cause friction in an attorney-client relationship and be the basis for a harsh jury verdict. That said, by submitting evidence on polychronic regions or objecting to time-based cross-examination questions based on cultural bias, we can combat these issues.

While we ostensibly celebrate cultural diversity in the United States, the American legal system falls short. We find “cultural collisions in the courtroom” that undermine proceedings “to such an extent that factual conclusions may rest upon nothing more substantial than the quicksand of cultural bias.”20 To fix this, we need more than interpreters; we need cultural brokers to bridge this gap and prevent bias. But when these brokers do not exist, we can still protect clients with constitutional safeguards and case law.


Legal protections for linguistic differences in the courtroom implicate fundamental rights of due process and a fair hearing under the Fifth and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.21 However, protections for cultural disparities are still in their infancy. Most circuits have recognized — often in the immigration context — that there is a cultural bias at play in proceedings. These decisions reference issues in evaluating witness demeanor, credibility, and assumptions about how societies operate.22 But these are only a small subset. Courts often skirt around cultural issues or fail to address them altogether. The question becomes not what laws protect clients, but how to implement them?

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has primarily focused on credibility, recognizing the need to “be sensitive to misunderstandings caused by language barriers, the use of translators, and cultural differences.”23 But there is little to no guidance on what this means in practice. How should adjudicators recognize and rectify their own cultural bias in a case? Judges are not given extensive cultural or language training.24 Indeed, a judicial lack of “cultural competence” is a “disturbing feature” of many cases.25 Rather, recognition of these issues is primarily left up to the advocacy skills of individual attorneys. And yet only about 37 percent of people appearing before an immigration court have legal representation.26


Consider the case of a Cameroonian man thrown into the American judicial system that failed to understand that his native language — pidgin English — was distinct from standard English “with its own grammatical and linguistic structure.”27 An immigration judge denied his case and never assigned an interpreter.28 The circuit court later held that his due process rights were violated; these rights are “meaningless in cases where the judge and ... applicant cannot understand each other.”29

This case handled a clear language issue. But on a deeper level, the circuit court was forced to confront bias and the role of language. The immigration judge, due to his own biases, failed to recognize pidgin English was a different language — “I know pidgin English ... Why did you have to practice English.”30

Despite the glaring judicial bias in this case, the word “bias” does not appear once in the appellate decision. This case was remanded, but fixing these issues at their foundation requires more than appellate success. It requires a fundamental shift in legal training to recognize and remedy bias.

Everyone has their own cultural biases, and even experienced judges “are not immune” from allowing it to affect their conclusions.31 The way to improve justice is requiring training on cultural and language differences for all individuals involved in the American legal system. Only by continuing to raise awareness of cultural bias can we begin to alter the dialogue and move closer to legal parity for people with different language and cultural backgrounds.

* * *

When “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was published in the United States, the title was changed to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Why? Because it was thought American audiences would not be familiar with the term “philosopher’s stone” — a famous mythological object. Instead, the title was changed to “sorcerer’s stone,” a term that sounds magical.32 The change is fitting. A substantial aspect of any communication is education, culture, and a sense of place. When we lose sight of these, so much is lost in translation.



1. Rowling, Harry Potter Et le Prince de Sang-Mele (Gallimard Jeunesse, 2007).

2. Burack, In the Hebrew Translation of Harry Potter, Sirius Black Sings Hanukkah Songs, Heylama (October 19, 2018), available at <https://www.heyalma.com/in-the-hebrew-translation-of-harry-potter-sirius-black-sings-hanukkah-songs/>.

3. Okrent, 8 Languages with Different Names for the Hogwarts Houses, Mental Floss (April 6, 2016), available at <https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/78202/8-languages-different-names-harry-potters-hogwarts-houses>.

4. Barton, Harry Potter and the Translator’s Nightmare, Vox (June 26, 2017), available at <https://www.vox.com/culture/2016/10/18/13316332/harry-potter-translations>.

5. Dietrich & Hernandez, Nearly 68 Million People Spoke a Language Other Than English at Home in 2019, U.S. Census Bureau (December 6, 2022), available at <https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2022/12/languages-we-speak-in-united-states.html>.

6. Ahmad, Interpreting Communities: Lawyering Across Language Difference, 54 UCLA L Rev 999 (2007).

7. Racial bias plays a large role in cultural bias in the American legal system and is deserving of space and recognition, but it is not the focus of this article.

8. Levin, The Lying Chicken and the Gaze Avoidant Egg: Eye Contact, Deception, and Causal Order, 71 S Commc’n J 401, 401 (2006). 8. Author Anne Fadiman describes advice she received while researching her book: “someone who merely converted Hmong words into English, however accurately, would be of no help to me whatsoever. ‘I don’t call my staff interpreters,’. . . ‘I call them cultural brokers.” Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collison of Two Cultures (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), p 95; see also Chin, Multiple Cultures, One Criminal Justice System: The Need for a “Cultural Ombudsman” in the Courtroom, 53 Drake L Rev 651, 657 (2005).

9. An interpreter works in spoken or signed language—such as interpreting in a courtroom setting. While a translator works in written language—such as translating documents.

10. Jaafari, Immigration Courts Getting Lost in Translation, Marshall Project (March 20, 2019), <https://www.themarshallproject.org/2019/03/20/immigration-courts-getting-lost-in-translation>; see also Santaniello, If an Interpreter Mistranslates in a Courtroom and There is No Recording, Does Anyone Care?: The Case for Protecting LEP Defendants’ Constitutional Rights, 14 Nw J L & Soc Pol’y 91 (2018).

11. Id.; Wong, A Matter of Competence: Lawyers, Courts, and Failing to Translate Linguistic and Cultural Differences, 21 S Cal Rev L & Soc Just 431 (2012).

12. The Lying Chicken and the Gaze Avoidant Egg, 71 S Commc’n J 401; A Matter of Competence, 21 S Cal Rev L & Soc Just 431.

13. Akechi, et al, Attention to Eye Contact in the West and East: Autonomic Responses and Evaluation Ratings, 8 PloS One 1, 1 (2013).

14. Procaccini, What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate: An Approach for Evaluating Credibility in America’s Multilingual Courtrooms, 31 BC Third World L J 163 (2011).

15. Keating, Why Time Is a Social Construct, Smithsonian Magazine (January 2013), available at <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-time-is-a-social-construct-164139110/>.

16. Duranti & Di Prata, Everything is about time: does it have the same meaning all over the world?, May 20, 2009, available at <https://www.pmi.org/learning/ library/everything-time-monochronism-polychronism-orientation-6902>.

17. Why Time Is a Social Construct; Lewis, Monochromatic and Polychromatic Cultures, CrossCulture (January 21, 2013), available at <https://www.crossculture.com/ monochromatic-and-polychromatic-cultures/>.

18. Goman, Communicating Across Cultures, AMA (January 24, 2019), p 5, available at <https://www.amanet.org/articles/communicating-across-cultures/>.

19. Schroeder, The Vulnerability of Asylum Adjudications to Subconscious Cultural Biases: Demanding American Narrative Norms, 97 BU L Rev 315 (2017).

20. Multiple Cultures, 53 Drake L Rev at 657, quoting Dia v Ashcroft, 353 F3d 228, 275 n2 (CA3, 2003).

21. Marino v Ragen, 332 US 561 (1947); Gonzales v Zurbrick, 45 F2d 934, 937 (CA 6, 1930); In re Tomas, 19 I&N Dec 464 (1987).

22. Perez-Alvarez v INS, 857 F2d 23 (CA 1, 1988); Abulashvili v Att’y Gen, 663 F3d 197, 206 (CA 3, 2011); Ndudzi v Garland, 41 F4th 686, 693 n2 (CA 5, 2022); Marouf v Lynch, 811 F3d 174 (CA 6, 2016); Djouma v Gonzales, 429 F3d 685, 687-88 (CA 7, 2005); Jinfeng Tian v Barr, 932 F3d 664 (CA 8, 2019); Chouchkov v INS, 220 F3d 1077, 1083 n15 (CA 9, 2000); Solomon v Gonzales, 454 F3d 1160 (CA 10, 2006), superseded by statute.

23. Marouf, 811 F3d at 180-81, quoting Reyes-Cardona v Holder, 565 F Appx 366, 367 (CA 6, 2014)).

24. Vaala, Bias on the Bench: Raising the Bar for U.S. Immigration Judges to Ensure Equality for Asylum Seekers, 49 Wm & Mary L Rev 1011 (2007); Executive Office for Immigration Review Immigration Judge Training, US Dep’t of Justice (2022), available at <https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1513996/download>.

25. Kadia v Gonzales, 501 F3d 817, 819 (CA 7, 2007), quoting Iao v Gonzales, 400 F3d 530, 534 (CA 7, 2005) and Djouma, 429 F3d at 687-88.

26. Eagly & Shafer, Access to Counsel in Immigration Court, Am Immigr Council (2016), available at <https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/sites/default/ files/research/access_to_counsel_in_immigration_court.pdf>.

27. BC v Att’y Gen, 12 F4th 306, 309 (CA 3, 2021).

28. Id. at 314.

29. Id., quoting Marincas v Lewis, 92 F3d 195, 204 (CA 3, 1996).

30. Id. at 312.

31. Dia, 353 F3d at 274 (McKee, J, concurring in part and dissenting in part).

32. Boboltz, Why ‘Philospher’ Became ‘Sorcerer’ In The American ‘Harry Potter’ Books, HuffPost (June 26, 2017), available at <https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ why-philosophers-stone-became-sorcerers-stone_n_59514346e4b05c37bb78466e>.