Why Does The Bible Say “Interpretation” And Not “Translation” Of Tongues?


In 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, the Bible lists the “interpretation of tongues” as one of the manifestations of the Spirit or one of the things given through the Spirit commonly referred to as “spiritual gifts”. This has caused many to “theologise” on why the Bible uses the word “interpretation” and not “translation” of tongues, with many suggesting that “translation is word for word, interpretation is thought for thought”[1]. In this paper, we will demystify the word “interpretation” from the linguistic and theological angles, delve into the difference between translation and interpretation as well as the real meanings of “word for word” and “thought for thought” which will lead to a discovery of dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence.


Let’s consider the translation of the following sentences from Akan/Twi to English.

  1. Bra ha
  2. W’adi nfie sɛn?
  3. M’adi mofrasɛm
Sentence “Word for word” Proper Translation
Bra haCome hereCome here
W’adi nfie sɛn?You have EATEN years how many?How old are you?
M’adi mofrasɛmI have eaten children’s issueI have acted childishly 

Table 1: “Word for word” and “Proper Translation” renditions of some sentences from Akan/Twi to English

Source: Author

Alternatively, let’s consider the translation of the following sentences from French to English.

  1. Viens ici
  2. Tu as quel âge?
  3. Je vais bien
Sentence “Word for word” Proper Translation
Viens iciCome hereCome here
Tu as quel âge?You have what age?How old ARE you?
Je vais bienI go well I am fine

Table 2: “Word for word” and “Proper Translation” renditions of some sentences from French to English

Source: Author

We see clearly from the tables above that the proper translation of these sentences is not always “word for word”.

It is, therefore, a misconception to say that “translation is word for word”. It’s like saying: “In the Church of Pentecost, ‘missions’ is about the work abroad or outside Ghana” (as we erroneously hear sometimes when it is time for missions offering).


“Word for word”, also known as literal translation is just one (there are many others) of the approaches or techniques in translation. As seen in the sentences above, a correct translation is sometimes “word for word” (just like a correct interpretation!). Yes, the “word for word” approach is also used in interpretation i.e. a written text, when read out or spoken, will be interpreted the same way it is translated.


One major challenge with the understanding of the topic under discussion is how one understands the word “interpretation”.  The word interpretation is a noun which derives from the verb “to interpret”. According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, the following are various definitions and examples of what it means to interpret:

  1. [transitive] interpret something to explain the meaning of something
  • The data can be interpreted in many different ways.
  • [transitive] to decide that something has a particular meaning and to understand it in this way
  • interpret something as something I didn’t know whether to interpret her silence as acceptance or refusal.
  • [intransitive, transitive] to translate one language into another as it is spoken
  • He took me with him to interpret in case no one spoke English.
  • [transitive] interpret something to perform a piece of music, a role in a play, etc. in a way that shows your feelings about its meaning
  • He interpreted the role with a lot of humour.

Now let us look at the word “interpretation” in theology. W. Randolph Tate, in the third edition of his book entitled Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach, has this to say:

Hermeneutics in the broad sense is bipolar: exegesis and interpretation. Exegesis is the process of examining a text to ascertain what its first readers would have understood it to mean. The varied set of activities which the hermeneut performs upon a text in order to make meaningful inferences is exegesis. Interpretation is the task of explaining or drawing out the implications of that understanding for contemporary readers and hearers…

The terms hermeneutics       and     interpretation, however, are often used interchangeably to refer to the process of determining the meaning and significance of a text.

Many ascribe the meaning that the word “interpretation” carries when used in reference to data, art, etc. (as seen in the dictionary definitionsss 1, 2 & 4 above) or in the theological subfield of biblical hermeneutics (bringing out the meaning and significance of a biblical text), which leads them to the erroneous conclusion that interpretation in tongues speaking is ‘thought for thought’.

One must not lose sight of the fact that in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, the word “interpretation” is used in reference to a language (speaking in tongues). Hence, the dictionary definition 3 above is the right one to use and have in mind when one tries to understand what the Bible means by “interpretation of tongues”. Simply put, the word “interpretation” in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 is used in the linguistic sense and not in the hermeneutical sense or any other sense.

For the avoidance of doubt, the difference between the interpretation of a biblical text and that of a spoken language is captured in the table below:

Kofi rekɔ fieKofi va à la maisonKofi is going home‘Kofi is going home’.  Akans (a people group found mainly in Ghana, West Africa) have a nice way of giving names to their children. One of such ways is using the day on which the child was born. Each name has its corresponding name whether you are male or female. If you are born on a Friday, you will be called Kofi (male) or Afia (female)…
Enti sɛ obi wɔ Kristo mu a, na ɔyɛ abɔdeɛ foforɔ; nnoɔma dada no atwa mu; hwɛ, nnoɔma nyinaa ayɛ foforɔ. (2 Kor 5:17 ASW)Si quelqu’un est en Christ, il est une nouvelle créature. Les choses anciennes sont passées; voici, toutes choses sont devenues nouvelles. (2 Cor 5:17 LSG)Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor 5:17 NIV)‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!’. Anyone means anyone-whether you are Greek, Jew or gentile. Whether you are slave or Free…Whether you are Ghanaian, Togolese or Lebanese or American, when you are in Chrost you are a new creation…

Table 3: ‘Biblical Interpretation’ and interpretation into French and English of a spoken sentence from Akan/Twi language.

Source: Author

We see clearly from the table 3 above that interpreting into a language is not the same as interpreting a biblical passage.


The Institute for Applied Linguistics of the University of Kent explains that “on a general level, the difference between interpretation and translation is that interpretation deals with spoken language in real time while translation focuses on written content.”

According to the American Translators Association, translators translate written text and interpreters interpret spoken or sign language.

In this light, a major difference between translation and interpretation is that translation is done of a written text (from language A to B or vice versa) whereas interpretation is done of a spoken word (from language A to B or vice versa.)

It is 100% accurate to say “tongues can only be interpreted and not translated”. And the reason is that tongues are spoken, not written. Yes, spoken word can only be interpreted and not translated!

But it’s misleading or even erroneous to say or add that “translation is word for word” and interpretation is “thought for thought”.

As already stated, “word for word” is just one of the approaches or techniques used in translation.

Similarly, the “word for word” approach is also used in interpretation! The sentences in the tables above, whether written or spoken will not be any different when they need to be said from Akan/Twi or French to English.


Some Bible TRANSLATIONS actually adopt the “thought for thought” approach, which is also known as Dynamic Equivalence (for instance the New International Version, Good News, Message Bible) whereas others adopt the “Word for word” approach also known as Formal Equivalence (such as the King James Version, American Standard Version, New American Standard Version, Young’s Literal Translation, English Standard Version).

So clearly, the “thought for thought” approach is not the preserve of interpretation. The “thought for thought” approach is also used in translation. Yes, translation is also “thought for thought”!


It is misleading or even erroneous to state that “translation is word for word, interpretation is thought for thought”. Both translation and interpretation can be done using both the “word for word” and “thought for thought” approaches, depending on the nature of the text being worked on.

The Bible mentions “interpretation” of tongues because tongues are spoken as a language and not written, hence can only be interpreted.

It is therefore 100% accurate to say that “tongues can only be interpreted and not translated”. Bible translations such as the New International Version, Good News, Message Bible all use the “thought for thought” approach in translating the original biblical texts into the English language.


American Translators Association “Translator vs. Interpreter: What’s the difference?” https://www.atanet.org/client-assistance/translator-vs-interpreter/

Drew Reichard “Why View a Bible Passage in More Than One Bible Translation?” https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2018/07/why-view-a-bible-passage-in-more-than-one-bible-translation/amp/

Inter Translations “What are the main techniques of translation?” https://www.intertranslations.co.uk/what-are-the-main-techniques-of-translation/amp/

Kent State University “TRANSLATION VS. INTERPRETATION: HOW DO THEY DIFFER?” https://www.kent.edu/appling/matranslationonline/blog/translationvsinterpretation

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries “Interpret verb “


The KJV Store “The Difference Between Formal and Dynamic Equivalence” https://www.thekjvstore.com/articles/the-difference-between-formal-and-dynamic-equivalence/

The Biblical Foundation “How to Interpret speaking in tongues” Interpretation of Tongues (Common Questions Answered) – Accessed on 29th June 2023.

W. Randolph Tate Biblical Interpretaion: An Integrated Approach, 2014 (3rd edition)

Wikipedia “Dynamic and formal equivalence” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamic_and_formal_equivalence

1 Corinthians 12:7-10 NIV “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.”

1 Corinthians 14:27-28 NIV “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.”

Analysis by Rev. Daniel Nana Sei Mensah, Resident Minister, PIWC French, Accra.

Member, International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI). E-mail: Daniel.NanaSei-Mensah@thecophq.org

[1] The Biblical Foundation “How to Interpret speaking in tongues” Interpretation of Tongues (Common Questions Answered) – Accessed on 29th June 2023.

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