Let's Go Back to the Bible

How Many Words in the English Bible?

To translate the words spoken or written in one language into another language is difficult. It may be because there are no specific words in the second language which fully represent the precise meaning of the words in the first text. Or it may be because the number of tenses in the first language is different from the number in the second. Or it may be because the precise meaning of a phrase, especially in figurative language, if literally brought into the second language, would confuse the person reading the translation.

Let me illustrate using information readily available on the internet. The translation of the Bible into English in the original King James Version in 1611 contained 788,280 words. The King James Bible we use today has 783,137 words. The New American Standard Version has 782,815 words, while the English Standard Version has 757,439 words. This variation reflects the emphasis and techniques of translation used in bringing the Hebrew or Greek into the English. It is not a major concern to those who understand the difficulty of translating from one version to another.

The responsibility of accurate translation lies in the hands of those who make the translation. Their work is to place the reader of the translation in the precise place of those who read the words when they were first written. Some say that such cannot happen, but it happens every day at the United Nations. When one addresses an assembly in that place, his words are immediately delivered in multitudes of languages to those from around the world in their native language. The translator must avoid placing any personal ideas of his own as he translates. A world leader speaks and immediately, because of the accuracy of translation, his precise thoughts are delivered to many nations. The translator does not add to the original messages any personal reflection of what he thought the world leader meant to say.

The importance of all of this is to urge those who want to do deep Bible study in English to use a Bible that by design is a word-for-word translation in every possible instance. However, in recent years many of the modern translations published have taken the approach of giving a thought-for-thought translation instead of a word-for-word translation. This approach opens the door for subjectivity in translation and results in a paraphrase instead of a translation. This can be seen by looking at a very popular version of the Bible—the New International Version (the NIV). How many words does this version have? It has 727,969 words. That is a difference of over 50,000 words and makes deep Bible study of Bible words impossible. It is vital we know the words God gave, not what a translator thought God meant. We need God’s words, not a translator’s thoughts.