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While I was searching for the German word for a contract (in the general meaning, as a binding agreement between any multiple entities, in any context) in my English-German dictionary I came across two German words: Vertrag and Auftrag. Both seem to translate to contract, so I would like to ask what the difference between the two words in terms of their meaning and other small nuances, or whether there are any other more widely used words for a contract.

In context, I’ve seen Vertrag used more for historical events (such as agreements between two countries) whereas Auftrag seems to be used in more everyday cases such as employment. However, I do not have a clue what specifically they refer to, or when to use which. For example, I’ve seen both Kaufvertrag and Kaufauftrag being used, although I’m not sure whether they mean the same thing. Which word for a contract is used more widely in everyday language? And apart from this, which one should I use in more specialized cases, for instance, for social contract (for which I encountered the use of both words) or for lease contract (which seems to be a Vertrag for some reason)?

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    If you get separate German words for an English term, like Auftrag and Vertrag for contract, why not try the reverse search and put the German terms into the dictionary of your choice? That should have cleared up the confusion fairly quickly. – Robert Jun 24 '15 at 21:44
  • @Robert I do wish to give ntrstd11 the benefit of doubt, because he says both seem to translate to contract — I think that a dictionary that translates Auftrag with contract is a bad one, but it sounds like he found it. – Jan Jun 25 '15 at 8:50
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Only Vertrag means contract. Vertrag is not limited to historical or important things. Auftrag is a task, an order, or an assignment.

You always have an Arbeitsvertrag that describes the relationship between employer and employee, Mietvertrag for landlord and tenant, and Kaufvertrag for buyer and seller.

Kaufauftrag is a buying order (again, Auftrag = order), and it may result in a Kaufvertrag, but it is a separate thing.

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The most general and common word for contract is Vertrag. There is also Kontrakt, which is equally general; I would however consider it obsolescent (though I haven’t found a dictionary marking it as such, so others may feel it is still a regular word). Words for special types of contracts are formed by composition: An employment contract is an Arbeitsvertrag and a lease contract can be a Mietvertrag, a Pachtvertrag or a Leasingvertrag depending on context.

Other words that can mean contract in legal language but have, in everyday language, a ring of being less strict and binding include Abmachung, Übereinkunft and Vereinbarung.

There are further synonyms that are especially common in international law (and accordingly history and international politics) such as Abkommen, Übereinkommen, Pakt and Konvention: Nordatlantikpakt, Nichtangriffspakt, Chemiewaffenübereinkommen, Wiener Vertragsrechtskonvention, Vertrag über die abschließende Regelung in Bezug auf Deutschland.

Finally, there are special types of contracts such as the Vergleich, in which two parties settle a disagreement by each backing down a bit, or the Konkordat, a treaty between the Holy See (representing the Catholic church) and a state.

Auftrag cannot normally mean contract.

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It does take rather a big strech, but in a bad dictionary I can imagine the word Auftrag being somewhere close to contract: If and only if you are contracting a craftsman to do some work (e.g. repave the driveway) then you would say in German

Ich beauftrage einen Handwerker. Der Handwerker bekommt einen Auftrag.

But this stems from different thoughts of what actually happens. Contracting someone implies that both sides are at least somewhat equal in the contract agreement, while the German beauftragen is a lot closer to order — hence everybody’s confusion as to why you’re even asking for those two words.

All contracts — meant as in a piece of paper that two parties sign — can and would be translated as Vertrag when translated directly. Hence your observation that treaties are often translated with Vertrag — although check chirlu’s answer for other possible translations here.

Therefore, it must be Gesellschaftsvertrag (social contract), Kaufvertrag (contract of purchase), Mietvertrag (leasing contract) and more. If you substitute -vertrag with -auftrag, you get valid words, however, they now imply an order (to do something): Mietauftrag is the order to lease something, Kaufauftrag is the order to buy something — both would be a boss giving them to his employee so that the employee can start searching for offers — and Gesellschaftsauftrag would mean something along the lines of where society is supposed to go.

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