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Discovering China through the dictionary: the story of polyglot Emil Krebs

Have you ever struggled to learn foreign languages at school? Have you ever tried to teach yourself another language as an autodidact? This article will take you on a fantastic journey to ancient China, retracing the footsteps of the exceptional German diplomat Emil Krebs, who during his lifetime managed to learn more than 68 languages. His passion for languages gave him a special key to understanding China at a time of huge disruptions. 



From Silesia to Synology: The origins of Krebs’ passion for languages


An old Chinese proverb states that every language provides a new window to look upon the world. For Emil Krebs, who was born in the small town of Freiburg (Silesia) on 15th November 1867, many windows soon began to open for this exceptional polyglot, which led him to the heart of Chinese power, the Forbidden City amidst the transformations of the 19th century.


Statistics from this time reveal the circumstances of his childhood. The community of Esdorf close by, where the family migrated due to professional reasons, counted about 48 houses and 388 inhabitants. A school in the village consisted of only one classroom for all pupils from around the region. Here, the difficult starting conditions for someone eager to discover the world become obvious. Nevertheless, at the age of nine, the young Emil coincidentally discovered a French dictionary at school and started teaching himself the language without telling anyone about his studies. After some weeks, he approached his teacher Theodor Hoffmann, appealing to him in French. While his fellow pupils laughed at him, his teacher discovered his tremendous potential, starting to support Emil in his language ambitions. Therefore, the student was promoted to higher education, eventually reaching the Gymnasium.


As his father was of modest background working as a carpenter, this was rather uncommon for that time, with higher education being rather a privilege of the well-off. After graduating from school with exceptional degrees, besides French, Hebrew, Latin and ancient Greek, Emil Krebs had already mastered Arabic, English, Italian, Modern Greek, Polish, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish, all taught by himself (Hoffman, 2017, p.1ff.). As a next step, the polyglot started studying theology at the university of Breslau, inspired by his devout mother. However, after one semester in 1887 he decided to change his academic course for law at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University Berlin. Simultaneously he enrolled at the seminar for oriental languages, where the Chinese began to draw all his attention. This institute had been founded just shortly before on the initiative of Otto von Bismarck to educate interpreters for the ambitions of Germany in the time of rising colonialism (Ibid., p.5f.). Only two years later, in 1890, Krebs passed his examination for Chinese interpreting and, in 1891, his exams to become a lawyer. Following that, he worked as a legal advisor in Gottesberg, but regretted not being able to apply his language skills, thus returning to Berlin later. 


Analogously to the discovery of his passion for languages, his mission for China can be seen as another coincidence. Shortly after his exams, Krebs had applied for a position as an interpreter in China, but was put on hold as no position was available. In 1892, he was already supposed to be sent to Constantinople, with a position opening there. With the exams for Turkish already scheduled, suddenly, in September 1893, Krebs received his call for Beijing, entering China, where he would spend the next 25 years of his life (Ibid., p.8ff.).


A quarter century on mission in China 


Diplomacy is primarily “institutionalised communication” (Bjola & Kornprobst, 2013, p.4). In the realm of diplomacy, the significance of language skills becomes unmistakably apparent. Taking, for instance, the European Parliament, members of this house are able to deliver a speech in their native tongue, all the while being understood by a wide audience that does not speak the same language. Here communication is facilitated in 23 languages, allowing every member of the parliament to speak in their mother tongue, through a diligent translation service. Emil Krebs would have been an asset to that, knowing all of those official EU languages. 


Translation and interpretation – translation taking place in written form and interpretation dealing with spoken language – cannot be considered a linguistic “post” service, delivering a package of words from one language to another. Instead, they rather resemble a form of landscape painting. Every translator or interpreter connects with the cultural background of the foreign language. For instance, the teacher may have a particular accent, which the translator will then adopt, or certain words may be more important in a particular setting. Similarly, the translator or interpreter may have experienced the foreign language through special traditions. In other words, a translation or interpretation of a language always depends on the person conducting it, thus adding a certain personal trait to it (Li, 2022). This became obvious with Krebs’ tasks and talent for building networks between Western diplomacy and Chinese officials.


When Emil Krebs arrived in Beijing on 5th December 1893, he soon figured out that his position consisted of two different layers. During his first time in China, he served as third interpreter for the German delegation to the Chinese Imperial Court. Here, he was sorting and translating correspondence with Chinese ministries. In 1897, he climbed up the ladder becoming second interpreter, and eventually, in the same year, he was sent to Qingdao (青島市), the capital of the recent German protectorate in the province of Kiautschou (膠州), where he served as head of the legal department of the local German administration. This task went well beyond simple knowledge of language and required a more profound understanding of Chinese culture, which is considered a highly contextual language, requiring reading between the lines. His supervisor, the commander of Kiautschou Paul Jäschke, remembered: 


“The first job (board of the Chinese law firm) requires a complete mastery of the Chinese language. The second job (district magistrate for Chinese law) requires an intimate knowledge about Chinese customs and views. Admitting Mr. Krebs to this position is not desirable due to Mr Krebs tremendous erudite character (...)  If Mr. Krebs is taken away from my staff,  in such a case, I would not only be without an advisor for Chinese matters, but in general the work of the Chinese part of the administration completely would come to a rest.”

(Hoffmann, 2020, p.17).


Besides his language skills, Krebs also demonstrated remarkable diplomatic abilities. When the German Empire intended to occupy the region of Kiautschou, it was Krebs who negotiated with General Zhang Gaoyuan, explaining to him that Germany would occupy the region, allowing the army to withdraw peacefully. After that, the general even sent a letter of gratification to Krebs (Hoffman, 2006, p.113). In Qingdao, the diplomat felt exploited and bored, appealing to the foreign office to be sent back to Beijing. This plea was supported by the German envoy Clemens von Ketteler. Later, on 20th June 1900, Kettler died in a political assault of the Boxer Rebellion and his interpreter was heavily wounded, leaving the German delegation without interpreting service. As a consequence, Kettler’s successor Alfons Freiherr Mumm von Schwarzenstein ordered Krebs back.


When Krebs returned back to Beijing, he was promoted to first interpreter, which included a pay rise and an own flat in the diplomat area (Ibid., p.118ff.). In recognition of his achievements in setting a peace agreement after the Boxer Rebellion, he was awarded the “Order of the Double Dragon” (御赐双龙宝星 - Shuang-Lung-Pao-Sing) by the Chinese Imperial Court, besides many acknowledgments and medals from the German Empire (Ibid., p.122). Later on, a Consul appointment offer  was rejected by Krebs, as he feared not having enough time for his language studies.


Soon, Krebs’ reputation as an outstanding speaker of Chinese brought him tremendous fame even among Chinese officials. Even Chinese institutions asked him for help with the country’s own regional languages, such as  Mongolian, Manchurian, or Tibetan – the Sino-Tibetan language family is remarkably diverse, encompassing dialects that can be considered separate mutually unintelligible languages (Hoffmann, 2020, p.17f.). Archaeologists and linguists started to discover the roots of Chinese at the beginning of the 19th century (Deng & Wang, 2009). Due to his high status, Krebs was a welcome guest among Beijing’s intellectual circles, including empress widow Cixi (慈禧), who appreciated Krebs as an intellectual interlocutor in Chinese and even Manchurian, her mother tongue. Krebs was invited for a session of tea with the famous empress several times (Hoffmann, 2006, p.131). 


During his 25 years in China, Krebs only returned back to Germany three times. In this regard, it is worth mentioning an amusing anecdote of his private life. During his second vacation at home, he met Amande Heyne, née Glasewald, for the second time. She had lived in Tsingtao with her first husband Adolf Heyne, who served as captain and meteorological institute, before getting divorced in 1906 (Hoffmann, 2006, p.124): Eventually, on his third trip back to Germany, Krebs proposed to her, and a wedding at the German consulate in Beijing and a long honeymoon through China followed. Even on this trip, Krebs kept himself busy studying Portuguese, searching for opportunities to apply his language skills. During this time, the couple mostly relied on the support of local consulates, where Krebs was invited to deliver extensive speeches (Ibid., p.128.). According to memories of Krebs’ family, Krebs seemed to have been a good husband and father, passionately taking care of his wife and children. However, as often recounted, his family had to go on vacation without him, as he was busy studying languages and books, retreating himself, and often even requiring appointments to be made (Ibid., p.130). 


Looking back on his long career in China, eventually, due to the turbulence of the First World War, Krebs had to leave China very abruptly after the German representation was dissolved with Japan’s occupation of many parts of China (Ibid., p.144f). After his return, Krebs retired, but kept working for the translation service of the Foreign Office. However, he never returned to China, leaving tremendous diplomatic heritage between Germany and China behind himself.   



The legacy of Emil Krebs in the Far and Near East


Despite these extraordinary life achievements, Emil Krebs seems to have been forgotten by a wider audience. However, his traces can be seen worldwide. For his studies of languages, Krebs relied on an abundance of books, building an immense library. After his death in 1930, his wife Amande and his daughter Toni made a list of the inventory, counting about 5.700 scripts in more than 111 languages. In 1932, the library was given to the U.S. Library of Congress, with the most precious artefacts to be preserved in the Jefferson Building. What is surprising is that despite his immense workload, Krebs always found time to study myths and culture of the foreign language he dealt with. Serving for the German diplomatic service  his language skills and knowledge about cultures was so extensive and profound, that his supervisors lauded him with the words: ” A colleague like Mr. Krebs is good for replacing 23 translators!”.(Hoffmann, 2006, p.21f.). After all, Krebs reportedly mastered 68 languages with different levels of fluency.


Meanwhile, the name Emil Krebs is listed in the “Encyclopedia for the names of foreigners in modern China (Chin. 近代来华外国人名辞典), only since about 2010, Emil Krebs was discovered in his Silesian home country. Eckard Hoffmann, who compiled those facts about his granduncle, was displaced from his Silesian homeland after the end of the Second World War. Those scars of German atrocities in Poland and the displacement of Germans from Silesia are deep in the relations between Germany and Poland. Therefore, when Hoffmann started his research, there was a mission to follow the steps of Krebs to promote mutual understanding between the two countries.


Here, in this formerly German region, which is today part of Poland, the ambitions for cross-border cooperation and mutual language learning are high. In his hometown Freiburg (today Świebodzice), a language competition was organised, titled “Krebsomania” (Crazy for Emil Krebs), encouraging students to learn foreign languages. In several quizzes and puzzles, students are encouraged to discover foreign languages. The winners gain a free language course of their choice. The regional importance of Emil Krebs comes alongside the idea of setting up an Emil-Krebs Foundation for Multilingualism and the Polish language, providing a house for methods of language learning, exhibition, and exchange of cultures (Hille, 2020). 


In his early days Mr. Krebs had left his Silesian hometown for connecting the West and the East, Europe, and China. Today his legacy supports the connection of East and West in Europe, providing a priceless contribution for mutual understanding between the peoples of Europe. 


A lesson for the future of Sino-European relations 


Concluding this linguistic journey of Emil Krebs on his voyages through China at the dawn of the 20th century, it is time to let the hyperpolyglot speak for himself, explaining his motivation:


“Although you will not be completely isolated in a foreign country even without knowing its language, you will meet compatriots there, including other foreigners whose language you know or who know our language, there will also be natives who are either able  to speak your language or a third language that we also know. But all of this cannot prevent foreigners, who do not know the local language from direct contact and exchange of ideas with the majority of the people. Those foreigners remain excluded from a deeper insight into the local intellectual life. Under such circumstances he (the foreigner) can never access the desirable knowledge of the country and its people as well as the national character of this culture. Therefore, he will not be able to cope with the challenges he might be confronted with, the same way as someone who is familiar with the national language. The latter has the gift of having no barriers to oral and written communication” (quoted after Hoffmann 2020:18).


Reminding the famous words of philosopher Wittgenstein, who argued that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, in times of globalisation and the digital age, which is connecting the most remote spots and cultures with each other, this saying becomes more striking than probably ever before. Following Emil Krebs and his experience in China reveals the importance of mutual language learning, gaining a better understanding of another culture and different multicultural perspective on the world. Facing the uncertain relations between Europe and China, this may serve as a stepping stone to find common ground, learning from each other’s past while envisioning the future. 


As an outlook for anyone wishing to follow the adventures of Emil Krebs, an exhibition was held at the German Foreign Office in Berlin. This exhibition is available online here,  encouraging everyone to follow the trajectory of this outstanding diplomat and, perhaps, get an inspiration to enter the marvellous world of foreign languages, or in Chinese: “加油, 加油!”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Stephan Raab holds two M.A. 's in political science and adult education from the Otto-Friedrich University, Bamberg. He has worked in the field of civic education for several institutions, such as the German Conference of Bishops or the European Parliament. Besides that, he has served as president of the Institute for Greater Europe, organising an essay competition about educational exchange between Europe and China. His research interests are mostly in the field of educational diplomacy and global education, focusing on global interrelatedness. You can find his works on X at @raab_stephan.


BIBLIOGRAPHY


Bjola, Corneliu; Kornprobst, Markus (2013): Understanding International Diplomacy: Theory, Practice and Ethics; Routledge, London.


Deng, Xiaohua & Wang, Shiyuan (2009): „Klassifikation der Chinesischen Sprachen und Dialekte“[中国的语言和方言的分类]. Übersetzung von Jie Li, Ting shui, Ute Heilmann, Stephan Raab. Berlin: Frank & Timme Verlag 2024.


Hille, Gunnar (2020): Emil Krebs im 21. Jahrhundert; in: Polnisch in Deutschland- Sondernummer: Emil Krebs und die Mehrsprachigkeit in Europa; p.28-32.


Hoffman, Eckhard (2006): Ein Viertel Jahrhundert in China; in: Hahn, Peter (eds.) Emil Krebs - Kurier des Geistes; Oase Verlag; Badenweiler; p. 108-147.


Hoffmann, Eckhard (2017): Emil Krebs- Ein Sprachgenie im Dienste der Diplomatie; Harrassowitz Verlag. Wiesbaden


Hoffmann, Eckhard (2020): Emil Krebs- Ein Leben den Sprachen gewidmet; in: Polnisch in Deutschland- Sondernummer: Emil Krebs und die Mehrsprachigkeit in Europa; p.15-27


Li, Jie (2022): Kognitionstranslatologie: Das verbale Arbeitsgedächtnis im Übersetzungsprozess; Frank & Timme Verlag, Berlin.



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