An 85-year-old American medical missionary and his wife served Muslim communities overseas for over three decades, but they are not retiring yet. They are instead working on the most ambitious project of their lives, translating the New Testament into Muslim-friendly English.
Dr. Viggo Olsen and his wife Joan, who live in Southern California, have finished the first draft of the culturally sensitive translation for Muslims, and are now working on the second draft, Pa.-based Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, their employer, announced Monday.
The Olsens learned about the need for special translations for Muslims after they began serving in Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, in 1962. About 90 percent of the 148 million people in this South Asian country which shares borders with India and Burma are Sunni Muslim, most of who speak Bengali.
Though a surgeon by profession, Dr. Olsen managed to finish some similar projects while in Bangladesh. He and his wife created a pocket dictionary of 4,600 Bengali Muslim words, and 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, according to ABWE.
The only Bible available in Bengali until 1980 was translated for Hindu and Buddhist Bengali-speaking people in the region that is now part of India. 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 said in an ABWE statement. "We tried to get others to do it, but they had their own projects. It seemed to us that this was the key to our work, so somehow it had to be done."
The couple would work until 2 or 3 a.m. when in Bangladesh. "There's no reason that the translation should have turned out so well on the basis of our background, yet somehow it was God who knew the principle was right and gave us the help we needed," Dr. Olsen said.
While the latest project will finish in 2013, the Muslim-friendly English translation of the Book of Matthew has already been published by Biblica, formerly called International Bible Society. The translation uses Arabic words to make it more relevant for Muslims. For example, the tile of the Book of Mathew is "The Holy Injil." It uses the word "Isa" for Jesus and "Ibrahim" for Abraham. "Small adjustments like that change the tone completely," Dr. Olsen said.
"Millions of people all over the world speak and read English," he added. "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. That may sound like an impossible dream, but God makes the impossible possible."
The New York Times once compared Dr. Oslen to Dr. David Livingstone, the great 19th century medical missionary and African explorer.