“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.” (1 Corinthians 14:27–28, KJV)
One time I had to escort a man from France to a company in Minneapolis Minnesota to see one of our company’s printing presses. He was interested in purchasing one. I picked him up at the airport and drove to the plant so he could have a meeting with the plant manager and plant superintendent. Now he spoke English so I presumed there would be no problem.
Having spent time with this man, I understood his dialect and what questions he wanted to ask. So we sat down in the plant office and the discussion started. During the discussion, the man from France did not understand what the two Americans were saying in English. So, I reworded what they said in a way that the Frenchman would understand. Then he asked a question in a way that the two Americans did not understand. So, I clarified his question so the other two would understand. This was happening quite often. I was clarifying something spoken in English by rephrasing it in English.
Eventually, something strange happened. The plant manager and superintendent looked at me and said, “Ask him, (meaning the man from France), this.” Then he responded by looking at me and said, “Tell them this.” The entire discussion changed as both the Americans and the Frenchman would speak to me asking me to translate what they said to the other. I ended up translating English to English. Yes, it was bizarre but it worked. I did have a good chuckle over it. The point is that it is essential for people to understand one another and in many cases, it requires a translator.
On two other occasions, I had the opportunity to preach to a group with a translator. On one I was speaking to a Korean speaking congregation. In the other, the service was bilingual since there were those who spoke English and others who spoke only Spanish. It would have been silly and meaningless to speak to the Korean congregation without a translator, for no one would have understood a thing. In the bilingual group, it would also have been a waste if the Spanish speaking people could not understand. In both cases, without a translator, many would have gathered nothing from my preaching.
This is exactly Paul’s point. If one speaks in a language that others cannot understand and no none translates it will be like speaking into the air with no real meaning. In this case, the speaker should just keep his thoughts between himself and God. So, there should never be people speaking in an assembly where their spoken words are not understood by everyone. Translation is essential.