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Emil Krebs – Living for languages

Exhibition: Living for languages

Exhibition: Living for languages, © Auswärtiges Amt

03.11.2011 - Article

Emil Krebs was an interpreter at the Foreign Office from 1893 till 1930. He spoke 68 languages and studied over 100. An exhibition at the Federal Foreign Office aims to honour his life’s work.

Arawak, Buryat, Gujarati, Tokhari or Vedic Sanskrit: Emil Krebs had a knowledge of all these languages. More than that: as an interpreter at the Foreign Office, he was able to produce official translations from over 40 languages. By the time of his death, he could speak and write 68 languages and had studied more than 100; he left a wide-ranging private library with some 5700 books and manuscripts in almost 120 languages.

He is one of the greatest linguistic marvels of all time. His genius was confirmed by the Brain Research Institute at Düsseldorf University, which dissected his brain and found a close link between his gift for languages and his brain structure.

Exhibition at the Federal Foreign Office

An exhibition now on in the Atrium of the Federal Foreign Office (17 January-19 February) aims to honour this very special linguistic talent. Organised by Eckhard Hoffmann, great-nephew of Emil Krebs, and curated by Berlin artist Andreas Tschersich, the exhibition provides an insight into Emil Krebs’ life and work. The time he spent in China plays a special role in both. The exhibition has been shown in many towns in Poland over the past few years, including at the universities in Wrocław and Kraków.

The languages on offer at school were not enough

Emil Krebs was born in Freiburg in Silesia (now Świebodzice, Poland) on 15 November 1867. Even at school, Krebs, who got good marks in other subjects too, opted to study all the languages on offer – Latin, Ancient Greek, French and Hebrew. Not satisfied with these four, he also taught himself Modern Greek, English, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Arabic and Turkish. By the time he left school in 1887, he could already speak twelve languages.

Emil Krebs in uniform© Family of Emil Krebs

At university, Krebs initially studied Protestant Theology (1887) and Law (passing the state exam in 1891), but he subsequently concentrated on the study of Eastern languages and cultures, particularly Chinese,

at the Seminar for Oriental Languages and Cultures, which opened in 1887 with funding from the Foreign Office and the Imperial Colonial Office, though it was attached to the University and was to prepare colonial officials, commercial travellers, etc. for assignments in the Orient. The political impetus for the establishment of the Seminar had come from Bismarck himself, annoyed that he did not have an interpreter for Turkish at the Congress of Berlin.

In Peking for the Foreign Office

After working for a while as a trainee court lawyer, Emil Krebs entered the Foreign Service on 30 September 1893 and was sent to Peking as an interpreter. His initial ten-year posting turned into a stay of almost a quarter of a century. He was appointed First Interpreter in July 1901 and Legation Councillor in 1913. The fact that he married his German wife, Amande Heyne, on 5 February 1913 not in Germany, but in Shanghai, indicates how deeply rooted he was in the country.

Emil Krebs turned down an appointment as Consul and refused to sit the consular exams, presumably feeling, despite having studied law, that languages were his true calling. He studied Chinese documents on all aspects of life – even Chinese braille. He also drew up linguistic comparisons between Chinese, Mongolian, Manchu, Tibetan and Arabic.

Getting to know peoples through their languages

Krebs wanted not only to learn the written languages of foreign peoples, but to learn about them from their history. His view of China, recorded in a 1920 manuscript, hints at anticolonialism and demonstrates his empathy with other cultures:

“China’s history of closer relations with the European states, stretching back around eighty years now, shows an unbroken chain of violations of China’s territorial and sovereign rights in the political, economic and cultural spheres...”

Emil Krebs’ Chinese business card© Brigitte Mayr, granddaughter of Emil Krebs

In China, Krebs was not only valued as an outstanding expert by Ambassador Otto von Hentig, but was also consulted on linguistic matters (Chinese, Mongolian, Manchu and Tibetan) by Chinese authorities. He was a popular guest in educated circles in Peking, and even the Chinese Empress Dowager was happy to receive him.

Encryption and Language Service at the Foreign Office in Berlin

When diplomatic relations were broken off on 25 March 1917, Krebs had to leave Peking. Back in Berlin, he shut himself off from society as much as possible, focusing even more keenly on his language studies. Up until his death, he had become familiar not only with numerous European languages, but also many others: Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Basque, Burmese, Croatian, Egyptian Arabic, Georgian, Hebrew, Japanese, Javanese, Korean, Latin, Norwegian, Persian, Russian, Syrian, Turkish, Urdu and the cuneiform languages Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian.

Following his return in 1921, the multi-talented and hard-working Krebs was assigned to the Encryption Service at the Foreign Office, and in 1923 also to the Language Service. In addition, he worked as a court interpreter. Attempts to find him a job at the Seminar for Oriental Languages, however, were fruitless. The head of the Language Service at the time, Paul Gautier, commented admiringly on Krebs’ work:

Krebs does the work of 30 people for us!”

Krebs’ own writings confirm that he often learnt new languages not via his own mother tongue, but using other intermediary languages: Afghan Persian, Burmese, Gujarati, Hindi, Irish, Portuguese, Sinhalese; he learnt Buryat, Finnish, Tatar and Ukrainian via Russian, and Basque, a difficult language, solely via Spanish. At the same time he worked on the Gipuzkoan, Biscayan, Labourdin and Zubero dialects, as well as Old English, the Peking and Shanghai dialects, colloquial variants of Chinese, Kalmyk, Ordos Mongolian, Sardinian, Tuscan and others.

This anecdote shows how his drive to learn new languages was visible in everyday life:

He could no longer restrain himself. He got up and walked towards a table behind us. Awkwardly, he introduced himself to two dark-haired gentlemen of Mediterranean appearance, but soon left them, ever so relieved. Strange sounds, unknown even to him, had reached his ears. He hadn’t been able to place them in either East or West Asia. It was Armenian. That very same day, he telegraphed Leipzig University Library to order an Armenian grammar book, Ancient Armenian church literature and modern Armenian novels.

He needed two weeks for Armenian grammar, three for Ancient Armenian and four for the spoken language.

Another anecdote illustrates his love of books and his tendency to eccentric solitude:

This is how I think of my brother-in-law. In his room in Lindenallee, with books, books all the way up to the ceiling. The universe, condensed into a small space, reduced to languages. The rows of volumes in yellow silk covers, gifts from the Empress of China, many volumes in blue silk. Strange signs on parchment, wood, palm leaves. The only furniture a lectern and a stepladder, no chair. Overly tenacious visitors were soon forced to leave, having stood for so long. And in the midst of it all, there he was, in a dark red kimono, looking at a book, murmuring constantly. Always friendly, if one disturbed him, but distracted. And once my sister sent visitors away with the sentence

‘My dear Krebs is learning Buryat just now.’“

Every genius deserves a worthy death, and the circumstances of Krebs’ death on 31 March 1930 were in keeping with his life: while at work in the Foreign Office Language Service – in the middle of a translation – he died of a stroke and was subsequently buried in Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf cemetery.

For many members of today’s Language Services Division, he remains an example to this day, having earned a special place in its history, fully in tune with the sentiment ”People die not with their physical death but when they are no longer remembered in the hearts of others.“

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