U.S. missionary, 85, produces Muslim-friendly Gospel

Published April 20, 2012

Serving as a surgeon in Muslim Bangladesh, Dr. Viggo Olsen saw the need for a culturally sensitive English translation of the Gospel. Photo: fritz16

After serving 33 years as a Baptist medical missionary in Bangladesh and around the world, Dr. Viggo Olsen has turned his surgeon’s hand to translation. He and his wife, Joan, are rendering the New Testament into English in a form acceptable to Muslims.

The need for such as version became apparent to the couple in 1962 when they began serving with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism in Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.

In those days, the only available Bible in the Bengali language dated back to missionary William Carey in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and its wording was better suited for Buddhists and Hindus. For example, for the word God it used the Hindu word, Ishwar, but Ishwar is just one of thousands of gods in Hinduism’s polytheistic universe. “To many Muslims, that is blasphemy and shocking,” Olsen said in a press release.

The Olsens first 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.

Even during his service as a surgeon at Memorial Christian Hospital in Malumghat, which he founded in 1966, he would work far into the night on the translation.

“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,” Olsen said. He and his colleagues have since trained other people in culturally sensitive translation.

Biblica recently released the Olsens’ Muslim-friendly English translation of the Book of Matthew. The cover has gold and green lettering, the colour green being associated with Islam since the days of Prophet Muhammad.

The Biblica publication’s title is The Holy Injil: First Book Matthew. Injil is the Arabic word for good news, and the Matthew text contains other Arabic words such as Isa for Jesus, Maryam for Mary and Ibrahim for Abraham, all of which have special significance for Muslims. “Small adjustments like that change the tone completely,” Olsen said.

Today, the Olsens have retired to southern California and they continue to work on the production of the other books of the Holy Injil.

“Millions of people all over the world speak and read English,” said Olsen, “…so this Muslim-friendly New Testament has the possibility of blessing every Muslim group in the world. That may sound like an impossible dream, but God makes the impossible possible.”


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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