I often hear both used to describe a person or a person's action. The direct translations aren't the same, but from my experience, when used in context, I can't tell when to use one over the other. What are the differences?
夸张 (kuāzhāng) simply means Hyperbole, Exaggeration.
As in, your friend told a story that was too
你朋友的故事太夸张了 - your friend's story is a bit exaggerated...
Or if someone is acting ridiculous, crazy, or flamboyant (in a funny way, not in a mean way), you could say they're acting 夸张.
过分 (guòfèn), as you can tell from the two characters 过 (overstep), 分 (portion, point)... that they've overstepped their points/ or overstepped their boundaries.
你朋友干吗打我？ 他太过分了。。。 - Why did your friend hit me? He went a bit overboard...
Something helpful for me...
When the translations of words are similar (in the case of 夸张 and 过分), it always helps to break the word into parts as I described above. That helps for two reasons:
- It gets you familiar with the individual meanings of characters
- Makes you more self-sufficient with learning the language as you can dissect each meaning when given ambiguous translations
They both mean "excessive" but 夸张 is less pejorative.
夸张 literally means "long in praise," and has the connotations of "a little too much." Think of a glass of water that is filled to "overflowing," so a little bit spills onto the table.
过分 has the connotations of "over the top," "crossed the lines," etc.