Should I be in charge of inventing crypto’s language?

For the past couple of years, a significant part of my job was the translation of one of the top three crypto websites — and this has not been a trivial task

OPINION
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For the past few years, a significant part of my job has been the translation of some of the largest crypto websites in the world. This hasn’t been a trivial task.

Cryptocurrency — a digital frontier shaped by its own set of rules — has not only challenged our understanding of finance and technology, but has also created an entirely new lexicon as nebulous as the blockchain networks it refers to. Innovation creates new machinery — and it also forges a fresh language, necessitated by the demands of novel concepts and ideas. 

And the lexicon of crypto, woven with its own abbreviations, acronyms and idiosyncratic phrases, poses a unique challenge to translators worldwide, a challenge that is as modern as it is rooted in the annals of technological history: How do we communicate the new?

As the world of crypto continues to grow, its language will undoubtedly continue to evolve, reflecting the experiences of millions of global users. 

This raises a question for translators: Are we linguistic pioneers, charting new territories with original translations, or attentive listeners to the whispers of community vernacular, echoing what is already accepted and understood?  

Regardless of our role, we cannot deny our part in shaping the very language of crypto. Every great technological revolution comes with its own unique dialect, a glossary of sorts; terms first born out of necessity or marketing wit, but eventually absorbed by the public imagination and transformed to reflect what they really are.

The car was originally often referred to as the “horseless carriage.” It was an attempt to understand the new through the lens of the old, a linguistic placeholder until the novelty became the norm. And when we entered the internet era, we witnessed another profound shift. While a shared English-centric jargon flourished, some languages chose their unique path. A notable example is French — which eschewed “computer” for “ordinateur” — a clear choice between linguistic assimilation and preservation. Germans call a mobile phone a “handy,” a cute barbarism.

A similar tug-of-war is now taking place in the crypto universe, spurring compelling debates about the role of translation — and presenting translators like myself with daily conundrums. 

Cryptocurrency is a whole new technological realm, emerging and developing right before our eyes, if not occasionally in the shadows. The people who are actually developing the technologies are usually the ones to coin these new technical terms, although writers and theorists can also play a part. These terms are then translated from the top down — beginning in scientific or literary circles — making their way to the masses to become absorbed into our language. And these new terms may undergo transformations along the way.

For example, the term “Internet” was first coined by J.C.R. Licklider in the 1960s — but it wasn’t until the 1990s that it became widely used by the general public. In that 30-year interim, the term was translated into different languages and adapted by scientists, engineers and writers for their own use. It was only after the concept of the internet became widespread that the word began to be used in everyday language, eventually losing the capital I by mid 2010s (June 1, 2016, to be precise).

Crypto’s linguistic path is unique. New projects appear every day — every single one  seemingly with a new technology and a diverse international community, spread out over Discord servers and Telegram chats. These community members are the very people who “own” the specific language for these new technological advances — and every novel term often first gets adopted en masse before it gets properly translated top-down. This inverts the very process of how language usually evolves. 

Imagine that there are 10,000 new crypto projects that need information translated for a global audience. Unlike the academic translator, say, who could use a dictionary for obscure scientific terms, the crypto translator needs to weed through obscure Discord services and anonymous chat groups constantly to figure out if any local community has already come up with an established lingo for a project.

Read more from our opinion section: To B or little b: That is the bitcoin question

As a crypto translator, the process of staying true to each new technological development is complex. My strategy has been to follow leading crypto websites in my language and engage with these local community chats, immersing myself in the linguistic currents that already flow in these circles. The underlying principle for crypto translators is not to impose but to adapt, to listen and to learn the language as spoken by the community. 

Crypto has other peculiarities in its language beyond how the words are created: Acronyms. My colleagues and I have had numerous debates on a case-by-case basis about whether it is worth localizing new terms or keeping the acronyms intact. It all comes down to how widespread crypto is in a region. For example, changing the term “TVL” (total value locked) to “LKA” (Lukittu Kokonaisarvo) may be understood by Finnish-speaking crypto natives, since virtually no local crypto media has yet established any other version of the term.

On the other hand, literally translating TVL to Russian, “ОЗК” (Общая заблокированная стоимость), will only confuse millions of Russian crypto natives, because that community already uses TVL — even though the original term is in a different alphabet. 

The adoption of English words in non-English languages is not a new phenomenon: It’s a natural response to the globalization of certain fields, especially tech and finance. Cryptocurrency, sitting at the intersection of both, appears to be following a similar path.

The difficulty translating acronyms in crypto then raises the wider, ever-present question of what a translator’s job actually is —  do we adopt a common English term for each new word, or do we create and force a “correct” new term in the local language? What’s more important — to convey the meaning of these new words for the hundreds of thousands of existing users, or care first about millions more local users to come?

Because language evolves, much like the technologies it seeks to describe.

The term “staking” offers a fascinating case in point. In my mother tongue, “staking” initially resisted taking any grammatical form other than a noun, giving me quite a headache. However, the local crypto community organically created a unique adaptation in less than two years: A new verb for staking with an exotic suffix and a derivative adjective. 

This novel form of “staking” although strange, was authentic, embodying the dynamic interplay between language and technology. It marked the linguistic transition from pidgin to creole, the language of crypto natives.

The language debate in crypto does not end with translators, but reflects a broader issue in the crypto world. It cannot be ignored that major industry platforms like CoinMarketCap, Coinbase or even Blockworks significantly shape crypto’s linguistic evolution. The terminology they employ often sets the industry standard.

This poses an interesting conundrum: Should the crypto vernacular be a decentralized, community-driven process, or should industry leaders nudge its development, asserting a structure for this newly expanding language, or merely mirror the existing linguistic landscape? 

As we delve into this vortex of language and technology, our footing may seem precarious, the path unclear. And that’s alright. There’s something almost poetic about our linguistic scramble to keep pace with the technological revolution of cryptocurrency. 

History tells us that language is not a static entity but a fluid one, evolving with every trade, every peak and every crash in the crypto market. It bends and molds, shapes and is shaped by our collective experiences and needs. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, by expanding the limits of crypto lingo, we are expanding the crypto world.

And so we find ourselves standing at the mouth of a linguistic labyrinth, the echoes of our technological history reverberating in its depths. As we venture further, we must remain vigilant, balancing on a linguistic tightrope between honoring the essence of local language and culture, ensuring global clarity and understanding. 

The future of crypto language is as unpredictable as the market itself. But perhaps therein lies the answer. Like the very technology we’re trying to understand and explain, we must be willing to adapt and evolve, to participate in a continuous dialogue, debate and exploration of these issues. After all, isn’t that what pioneers do?



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