ERWIN REIFLER, 1903 – 1965; OLMÜTZ 2017

Erwin Reifler was a sinologist and a linguist. He specialised in Chinese semantics and comparative philology, and became a pioneer of machine translation.

Erwin Reifler was born in Vienna in a Jewish family of artists. He developed an early interest in Chinese and linguistics. In 1923, he began to study political science and took up sinology at Vienna University with Arthur von Rosthorn. He got his PhD degree in 1931 with a dissertation on State and Administration in Ancient China. Besides that, he worked as an assistant for Rosthorn, and as an interpreter for Chinese.

He got to know many Chinese living in Vienna, including the American actress Anna May Wong, who worked in China on a film starring Marlene Dietrich. Anna May encouraged Reifler to go to China in 1932, where he stayed in Shanghai to work for the Austrian Consulate as an interpreter, and taught German at Jiaotong University.

In 1936, when the political situation for Jews in Europe worsened, Reifler managed to let his mother and sister migrate to Shanghai. He himself started to look for his Jewish roots and began to learn Hebrew. He got to know Rebecca, the daughter of Rabbi Mendel Brown, Shanghai Sephardic Synagogue Ohel Rachel, and married her in 1939 – after a short period of teaching Chinese and German in Hong Kong. There he had published his first study: A New Approach to the Chinese Language.

Back in Shanghai, Reifler taught German and Latin at the National Medical College, and gave private language lessons. From 1943 to 1947 he hold a professorship for sinology at the French Université l‘ Aurore, became editor of the Bulletin de l’Université de l‘Aurore and continued his research on Chinese language. He published La Langue Chinoise à la Lumière des la Philologie Moderne (1943) and started to work on a German-Chinese dictionary, which eventually he could not complete. After failing to migrate to England in 1946, he took the chance of staying in the US, after he attended a conference of the American Oriental Society in Washington, D.C. in 1947. After a short period as guest professor he became assistant professor, and in 1955 professor for sinology at the University of Washington in Seattle. His main field of research became semantics of the Chinese and comparative semantics. He published on measuring systems in China, India and other countries. Several of his studies were published posthumously, for instance A Comparative History of Metrology Mansell 1984, together with H. J. Griffin.

In 1952, he got involved in the cooperative project working on machine translation. Financed by the National Science Foundation, he started experimenting with German, which was later followed by Chinese. He became a pioneer of machine translation, a forerunner of computer-aided translation. After Reifler’s early dead, his library went to the University of Illinois (Champaign -Urbana).

Bruce Brooks later, with respect to the careers of his five children, characterized Reifler: “Somehow, Reifler conveyed in his own family circle the importance of learning and teaching, the fascination of language, and the value of precision with language. Thus, do his philological and his Rabbinical sides, his theatrical and his committed aspects, come together in the end as a dedication to learning.” (link access April 20th, 2017) Source for the article: