Translating Your App for the Chinese Market

Translation from English to Chinese language is usually the first thing that developers think of to localize their mobile app for China. The more local your mobile app feels to users, the more intuitive – and therefore successful – it will be in the Chinese market.

While tools like Google Translate are helpful for understanding the basics of a text, you should NEVER trust an algorithm to finesse the complexities of a language – especially when it comes to common conventions that have developed over time for mobile apps in China.

Considerations when translating your mobile app to Chinese

  • Menu Text Conventions – In the USA, if you’re looking for contact info about a company on a webpage, you’ll search for the “About” link. But what Chinese consumers look for does not translate directly into the Chinese character for “About”. For usability, it’s imperative that you follow the organically-developed language conventions for buttons, menu items, and functions.
  • Embedded Images – Some of your images and/or icons may have words, symbols, or even single letters that require translation for a foreign audience. Remember that every culture has its own way of looking at the world.
  • Icons – Even symbolic conventions that we accept as natural in the West often need translation and interpretation. For example, Chinese users more commonly look for a heart-shaped icon to access “Favorites” than a star-shaped icon. A standard “shopping cart” icon may be better represented as a basket in some Asian countries.
  • Communications – Some short headlines and notices can seem harsh, silly, or just plain weird when literally translated word-by-word. Paying close attention to cultural norms will help avoid offending or confusing users.

  • Legal Language – Terms of Service and other common contracts users must agree to should be reviewed by a person familiar with Chinese law. This is critical to protect your rights and avoid misunderstanding.
  • Slogans and Ad Campaigns – Creative slogans and phrases often need to be completely reworked for a different language. Even global companies have suffered through embarrassing mistakes. KFC’s “Finger-Lickin’ Good” was originally translated to “Eat Your Fingers Off” in Chinese. HSBC Bank’s slogan “Assume Nothing” became “Do Nothing.”
  • Chengyu – Mandarin is a language chock-full of 4-character idioms known as chengyu, which are deeply rooted in historical facts, myths, and stories of Chinese culture. A knowledgable translator can incorporate these into your text when appropriate to make it more concise and native, to improve user acceptance and familiarity.

In the end, it’s always best to spend the extra time and money to hire a knowledgable native expert to analyze your translation for simple mistakes and faux pas’s.

Need I pay attention to different Chinese dialects?

China has eight major dialect groups, with many sub-dialects within each, many of which are unintelligible from one another. However, unless your app is a language education app that would naturally incorporate dialects, we recommend you stick with Modern Standard Mandarin, as most Chinese apps do.

Simplified vs. Traditional Chinese Characters

Which is best to use is an ongoing debate, and strongly rooted in local culture. People in Mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore generally use Simplified characters, while Taiwan (Republic of China), Hong Kong and Macau use Traditional. Most Mainland Chinese can read Traditional characters, but not the other way around. However, younger Mainland users may instinctively dislike reading Traditional characters, while Hong Kong residents may feel the same about Simplified Characters.

Because Mainland China has the most Android users, we recommend defaulting to Simplified Chinese, but design your app to allow users to choose between the two if possible.

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