Word of the Week in Law: Blockchain

Word of the Week

It seems like every time I open the financial news section in any given newspaper there’s at least one article about cryptocurrencies; and, when those articles are in Spanish, there’s an interesting mix of linguistic criteria for reporting on what cryptocurrencies are and why they matter.

Naturally, whenever there’s a hot topic, non-English speaking experts have two choices: they can translate every key term related to that hot topic or they can adopt the foreign term as is into their own language. And, when it comes to cryptocurrencies, Spanish speaking experts seem to have decided to mix it up, not just in their specialist literature, but also in their contracts.

So, while the umbrella term cryptocurrency was hispanicized as “criptomoneda” or “criptodivisas,” other related terms suffered a different fate. One such term is blockchain. Even though blockchain technology is, technically, what makes cryptocurrencies possible, experts are happy to translate one term, but not the other.

What does blockchain mean?

According to Kimberly Burns and Mahdi Shams from LMT Aikins LLC:

A blockchain is a cryptographic, evolving chain of decentralized records that can detail a multitude of information.

These evolving chains of records are called blocks, and are linked together through cryptography. Cryptography is essentially the science of secure communication. The blocks memorialize transactions between parties over a peer-to-peer network, which cannot be altered post-transaction, creating a decentralized digital ledger.

By using a peer-to-peer network, a blockchain consists of a series of chronological entries recorded by a vast number of people, accessible by anyone. This is known as distributed ledger technology, which allows blockchain users to trace transactions, and eliminates the need for central independent recordkeeping.

To Translate or Not to Translate

In my humble opinion, there’s far too much specialist literature written in Spanish but using the term blockchain in English. It is fairly common to run into awkward sentences like this one: “La tecnología blockchain y las criptomonedas que se han creado a partir de la misma, han supuesto un cambio de paradigma […].”

Now, normally, I am not a language purist. In fact, I will often be that (sometimes annoying) person making the case for leaving untranslatable terms in their original language, as opposed to deforming the target language with literal word-for-word nonsense just to force a translation. But, given that blockchains literally are a series or chain (cadena) of blocks (bloques) carrying data records of transactions between parties, I see no reason why this term shouldn’t be translated into Spanish as “cadena de bloques.”


NOTE: As of 2016, the University of Pittsburgh has been publishing Ledger, the first traditional, peer-reviewed, academic journal dedicated to cryptocurrency research. I found Ledger to be a very valuable source of information for researching how cryptocurrency-related words are used. So, I strongly encourage fellow lawyer-linguists and translators to add Ledger to their list of research resources.

  3 comments for “Word of the Week in Law: Blockchain

  1. February 14, 2018 at 11:00 am

    The process of rendering a foreign word into one’s own language is fickle at best. In my experience, as a foreign speaker of the Spanish language at many levels, I see that there are two major factors at play: status and “pronounceability”. Since many perceive English as a “prestige” language in the Spanish-speaking world, many products and proper names are left or even christened in English. There’s a driving school around the corner from my house called “Driving Cars”. No real need to name it that other than it sounds cool, I surmise.

    So if blockchain is both pronounceable and sounds fashionable, it is reason enough to leave it in English. Interestingly enough, I have heard that in Argentina, people try to pronounce every syllable of English words as if they were originally Spanish: blockchain would be pronounced something like bloc-cha-ín, whereas in other parts, such as Chile, it would be pronounced something more like BLOC-chein, or maybe bloc-CHEIN.

    My guess is that something like cryptocurrency would be a bit long to be left as is in Spanish. Also, I think that people are more familiar with the concept of currency and the prefix crypto. I like the fact that currency is rendered as both moneda and divisa, because the two terms in Spanish do not mean the same.


    • February 15, 2018 at 7:52 am

      Hi Reed,

      Thanks for your comment. Actually, Argentinians insist on pronouncing English words as if they’d been written in Spanish. So, they wouldn’t stress the “i.” They’d stress the “e.” Like in Argentina’s famous “che.” It would be bloc-chein if you’re from the city, and bloc-chéin if you’re from the province. Uruguayans would pronounce it bloc-chéin, since their accent is closer to that of one of Argentina’s provinces (Entre Ríos).

      Also, most laymen are not aware of the difference between “moneda” and “divisa” in economic theory and finance. So, these terms get misused a lot.


      • February 16, 2018 at 1:17 pm

        Thank you, Paula for your comprehensible and edifying explanation.


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