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Emil Krebs – linguistic genius

03.11.2011 - Article

Although there was no European Union 120 years ago, the Language Division of the Federal Foreign Office had one staff member who spoke nearly all the languages spoken in today’s EU – in addition to several non-European languages.

Although there was no European Union 120 years ago, the Language Division of the Federal Foreign Office had one staff member who spoke nearly all the languages spoken in today’s EU – in addition to several non-European languages.

Emil Krebs
Emil Krebs© OASE Verlag

He was said to have mastered the words and symbols of 68 languages. To this very day, Krebs – who worked for the Federal Foreign Office from 1893 to 1930 – is considered to be one of the greatest linguistic geniuses of all time. Back then, it was said in the Federal Foreign Office, “He can do the work of 30 staff members.” He learned all about languages with a passion which focused solely on the phenomenon of human language. But Krebs was not primarily concerned with learning to communicate in all of his languages. “He was silent in 45 languages,” said one of the ladies who had been sitting at his table after an official dinner. Rather, Emil Krebs wanted to understand the structure and the “philosophy behind the language”.

A monograph has now been published by OASE publishing house in tribute to Emil Krebs and his outstanding talent. However, it is also about the relationship between language and diplomacy as well as about an era when we were faced with the challenges of global diplomacy beyond Europe’s borders for the first time. It was the age when Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of “planetary politics”, thus describing the challenges of globalization.

Eckhard Hoffmann, Emil Krebs’ great-nephew, tirelessly collected material for this book and carried out his own research. Furthermore, he encouraged the Language Division of the Federal Foreign Office to do more research which resulted in exhibitions on Emil Krebs as well as this volume.

Whether in German or in one of the many other languages he spoke, his aim was to preserve the “spirit of the language” of the original in the translation, said editor Peter Hahn. Seen in this way, translators and interpreters – regardless of whether they are seen as loners or mavericks – are first and foremost “couriers of the spirit” who connect people and cultures with each other. Being guided by the tongue of the people was recommended by Martin Luther in his “Open Letter on Translating” way back in 1530: “We must be guided by their tongue, the manner of their speech, and do our translating accordingly.”

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