Localization Isn’t Translation: What It Means to Localize an App for China

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30 Sep Localization Isn’t Translation: What It Means to Localize an App for China

The Chinese mobile market is a mammoth opportunity- this blog has made that much clear. This post will dive deep into localization, the key to success in China, and why it’s not the same thing as translation, which is just one small part of all that is necessary to localize an app for China.


Let’s start at the beginning. Do you have to translate an app for the Chinese market? Absolutely. China ranked 37th out of 63 countries in the 2014 EF English Proficiency Index and it is estimated that under 1% of China’s population speaks English well. If an app isn’t translated, it won’t be a viable option for the grand majority of consumers.

A simple translation isn’t enough, especially when talking about China. First of all, even with all the leaps and bounds that auto-translate tools have made, they still aren’t advanced enough for the incredibly nuanced language that is Chinese. Chinese is constantly evolving (words often go out-of-vogue or change connotation) and built heavily upon phrases that refer to ancient times or fables.

For example, the first option Google Translate lists for “tap” means excavate, which would clearly not work for “Tap Titans”. Do you ever wonder why there are so many articles full of signs with horrible translations (see above, and to the right, for reference)?  English and Chinese just don’t mix that well, which it’s why it’s crucial to get real people, and native speakers at that, to localize your app for China.

Explosive Dog- an example of poor translation


So now you understand why you need to translate. But what are you missing out on if you don’t culturalize? First of all, players might not understand your plotline. For example, the drama between Cao Pi and Cao Zhi probably means nothing to you but this historical plot is the center of many shows, games, and books in Chinese culture.

Okay, what if your plot is more universal? That’s great but can you be certain that nothing in your game is offensive or has a double-meaning in Chinese? For example, you could run into trouble if your character wears a green hat, similar to the one worn by one half of everyone’s favorite Italian plumber duo. No one in China wears a green hat because it means that you have been cuckolded. Even if your character is a Celtics fan, their green hat would raise suspicions and giggles.


China’s social networks are incredibly lively, with 659 million active social media users. However, due to government restrictions, most Western social networks are blocked, with local Chines equivalents for everything from Facebook to Tinder. This means that, even if you do translate your app (and manage to distribute on Chinese app stores), the second anyone tries to use your social functions, it will fail. To successfully localize an app for China, integrating with the proper social networks is a must-have to achieve virality.


Even app icons have to be changed to fit China. In the West, app stores are coevered with “action mouth” icons, Chinese app stores, however, tend to feature attractive female characters. So, for Toy Defense 3, we switched out the menacing troll for a pretty, curvy blonde archer.


The Respawnables celebrated last Chinese New Year worldwide with an update that caught the eye of many Chinese mobile gamers. However, this update was published a bit late, on February 15, just one day before the holiday. It would have been more effective had it been published earlier in the week, giving gamers a chance to play on their travels back home.  Regardless of timing, The Respawnables is still an excellent case of localization for the Chinese market. For details about this update, check out our 4 Examples of All-Star Localization.

Localization is the key to unlocking the Chinese market. Localization includes translation, plot and design changes, social network integration, and other aspects, such as monetization, that we did not cover in this post. Monetizing in China is so important, and nuanced, that we want to discuss this in a standalone post, coming soon. At Oniix, we take great pride in our ability to localize an app for China, so that when we publish an app in China, it will be incredibly appealing to local audiences.

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