By Mark Ellis
For his medical work in Bangladesh over 33 years, the New York Times compared him to Dr. David Livingstone, the great 19th century medical missionary and African explorer. Now Dr. Viggo Olsen, 85, and his wife Joan, are spending an active retirement translating the Scripture into a more accessible form of English for Muslims.
“Muslim people have a fascination with the New Testament of Jesus,” Dr. Olsen says. He spent 33 years as a medical missionary with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, which is chronicled in the #1 national inspirational bestseller “Daktar: Diplomat in Bangladesh” (Moody Press).
As octogenarians, he and his wife may not be able to work the long hours they once did, but the impact of this project will long endure.
Biblica, formerly called International Bible Society, already has released the Olsens’ Muslim-friendly English translation of the Book of Matthew. The cover is green with gold lettering. Green has been associated with Islam since the days of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Titled “The Holy Injil,” their translation of familiar names helps cross the cultural divide with Muslims, as evidenced by this opening passage in Matthew:
“This is the record of the family line of ‘Isa al-Masih. He is the son of Dawud. He is also the son of Ibrahim. Ibrahim was the father of Ishaq, Ishaq was the father of Ya’qub.”
Dr. Olsen’s team also translates God as ‘Allah,’ which is controversial in some circles. “Arab Christians were using the name Allah for God hundreds of years before Muhammad,” Dr. Olsen says. “Islam was not even in the picture.”
He also notes that 30 million Christians in Indonesia use the name Allah for God today. Furthermore, every Arabic Bible ever produced by Arab Christians uses Allah for God, both before and after Muhammad’s time. It is the “natural, accurate thing to do,” he contends.
The Holy Injil translation has been read and checked for accuracy by the highly regarded Islamic consultant and scholar, Dr. Dudley Woodberry, several other scholars and trained laymen from Muslim backgrounds, a pastor in Cairo, Egypt, and Biblica. Dr. Olsen notes his wife’s competency and involvement as a valuable member of the team. They completed the first draft of the New Testament and plans to finish the project in 2013.
Dr. Olsen refuses to change the title ‘Son of God’ as some recommend, because Muslims may find it offensive. “Some Muslims are allergic to this because they have been taught that Christians believe God had sexual relations with Mary,” he says. Dr. Olsen uses footnotes in the translation to explain this point. He believes any change in the actual text would undermine essential truths about the Trinity.
The importance of special translations for Muslims became apparent after the Olsens began their medical mission in Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, in 1962.
When they arrived, they found that the only Bible in the Bengali language available to Muslims used antiquated language better suited to Buddhists and Hindus. For example, it used a Hindu word, ‘Ishwar,’ for God. Ishwar is one of thousands of Hindu gods. “To many Muslims, that is blasphemy and shocking,” Dr. Olsen notes.
The Olsens created a pocket dictionary of 4,600 Bengali Muslim words, then spent 10 years leading a team that created a New Testament for Bengali Muslims. Published in 1980, it became the No. 1 best-selling book in Bangladesh and has been a bestseller ever since.
Dr. Olsen served as a medical doctor and surgeon at Memorial Christian Hospital in Malumghat, Bangladesh, which he and his team founded in 1966. He worked on the translation during his free time, often until 2 or 3 a.m. “Our hospital work was great, but this translation work is even bigger and better than that,” he exclaims.
Today, the Olsens live in Southern California. Despite being slowed by recent surgeries, their zeal for their work has not diminished with age.
“Millions of people all over the world speak and read English,” Dr. Olsen says. “There are more than 3,000 Muslim people groups, with many English speakers in them, so this Muslim-friendly New Testament we’re working on has the possibility of blessing every Muslim group in the world.
While it could take many years to translate Scripture for every one of the 3,000 groups, one English translation may touch all the groups. “That may sound like an impossible dream, but God makes the impossible possible.”