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When looking at the rather lengthy list of translations offered by Leo for "request" (noun) I get a clear impression that the word has a spectrum of politeness and expressing a wish/desire (Bitte, Wunsch) to one of a demand. I'd like to know the degree to which the different German translations vary in how demanding they sound. To my untrained ear, the variations with Forderung sound rather strong (i.e. a demand), but I'm obviously missing some nuance between Anforderung, Abforderung and Aufforderung; Ersuchen and Ansuchen; and Antrag and Auftrag.

I could imagine two factors at play here: 1) the degree to which the person/department being asked is actually responsible for that, and 2) the degree of entitlement that I have on the task to be performed.

Perhaps it would be helpful to divide the spectrum into those words that are:

  1. asking for a favor (with degree of friendliness or neutrality),
  2. requesting that someone who is responsible for something does that thing (neutral)
  3. demanding that someone who is responsible for something (strong to very strong, or neutral).

Basically I'd like to avoid sounding like I'm demanding something when I'm actually very neutrally or even amicably requesting it. Thanks in advance!

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Neat question, really. I'll sort all the leo translations for the bare "request" into the three good categories you thought of and qualify entries where needed -- all according to my personal impression of those words as a native speaker (Eastern Germany). Please note that words for lower-numbered categories can still be used in higher-numbered categories, with a degree of over-politeness or understatement or even as a way of patronizing the receiver. Some words are placed in more than one category with good reason. Some didn't get a spot on the list at all. See below for more info on that.

  1. asking for a favor (with degree of friendliness or neutrality),

    • die Bitte - a very polite way of requesting something, but expresses a formidable desire for that something. Denying this might result in hard feelings in social settings.
    • der Wunsch - a very friendly way, a lot softer than Bitte.
    • die Anfrage - a very formal way to issue a request. This is much harder, or more down to business, than a Bitte, and might warrant a colder reply. For example "Wir haben Ihre Anfrage nach einem Zustellbett erhalten und prüfen derzeit die Verfügbarkeit. Falls eines verfügbar ist, buchen wir dieses gern kostenfrei auf Ihr Zimmer auf".
    • der Aufruf - strong plea for action, towards someone or a more often towards a group that does not have any direct responsibility for that. The sender might feel or imply, however, that the receipient should indirectly feel responsible, i.e. on grounds of ethics or the Golden Rule. This might be used for example in conjunction with a call for blood donations after a big accident.
  2. requesting that someone who is responsible for something does that thing (neutral),

    • die Anfrage - a formal way to request information from someone responsible for said information (think press inquiry, FOIA inquiries).
    • das Ersuchen - a very polite and formal way to issue a request for something that only the receipient can do. This sounds a bit old, but might be used when talking to government agencies, or ambassadors. I wouldn't use this with companies, unless they own a monopoly you rely on with your life.
    • das Gesuch - just like Ersuchen.
    • der Antrag - a formal way to request information or action in a formal way, based on some real entitlement, like a law. This is usually associated with bureaucracy, and forms, and processes. May be denied if the recipient does not follow your argumentation.
    • die Anforderung - the formalization of something you need and the other has or can produce. In my filter bubble, this is most often paired with resources or features. This might be modified or denied by the recipient, but only with good reason (no resources available or the feature conflicts with another feature, or with common sense).
    • die Nachfrage - politely requesting information you did not get yet (from an earlier request), or that you did not understand the first time. See paragraph below the list, too.
    • die Abfrage - a formal, technical word, basically only used for describing queries towards a database or something like that. Can also be used to describe quizzing a student before an exam, like "Sein Vater hat gestern noch die Vokabeln abgefragt.", but that's quite far from "request".
    • die Klageschrift - a formal word for describing a court petition. Hardly used for anything else outside court proceedings.
  3. demanding that someone who is responsible for something (strong to very strong, or neutral)

    • die Abforderung - like Anforderung, but with less room for discussion. This usually comes in the form of an order. Can also be used by the receipient when talking about requests he cannot deny, but deems to be burdensome ("Er fordert mir ganz schön was ab.")
    • die Aufforderung - call to action. That's close to an order, and the receipient is expected to follow the request. A company might use it in context of an overdue invoice, or a court of law might use it to invite a witness to a hearing. Non-compliance might result in problems, if you don't have very good reasons.
    • der Auftrag - call to action in a dependent relationship, i.e. between boss and subordinate, or valued customer and company. The receipient usually has much to lose when not complying. Like losing that business, or his job, while the sender might just choose someone else to substitute for the receipient.
    • die Forderung - similar to Aufforderung, but it's less clear if the reciepient is responsible for meeting the request. This would be used i.e. in a conflict between two businesses where A thinks B did not fulfil its obligations, but B might not agree. This is also used in financial context, where a creditor posts a claim, i.e. from an unpaid invoice.

I didn't put das Anliegen and das Ansinnen anywhere because it feels like in practice they're not really coupled to a particular way of requesting something, but rather describe the objective of the request itself. That said, they might be used as a very very neutral way to talk about a request, but when you're not even sure that the receipient, or really anyone, is responsible or able to help you with that one. I can't think of a way to put this in category 3.

Die Nachfrage did almost not get sorted either, because - without context - I don't see it as a good general translation for request. It matches inquiry much much better. Inquire about something you did not understand the first time, or that you requested earlier but did not hear back about yet. I put it in category 2 because of the requesting information side of it. Doesn't make sense to send that towards someone who doesn't have that information.

Never seen das Ansuchen used in standard or formal German, so perhaps don't use it. It feels very old and/or alien. Could be an Austrian thing? Hubert?

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    Clear explanation with lots of useful examples.. – Ad Infinitum May 21 '17 at 20:14
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Let me first try to paraphrase the meaning of each of the translations you mentioned.

  • Anforderung:
    To me this has a connotation of getting supplied by an established supply chain. You are working in a Pizza place, and are requesting some chopped tomatoes now from the person doing the tomatoes. Or you are an emergency physician on site and are requesting a helicopter for one patient. The request is likely anticipated, but the actual need, or perhaps the timing or quantity, are part of the request you communicate.
    Anforderung can also denote a requirement, e.g. in a job description, but that's a different meaning.

  • Abforderung:
    In my experience rarely used as a noun. The verb abfordern is similar to abverlangen (which I'd consider the more common form) and suggests a demand which might put a considerable burden on the one being asked: “da wird den Schülern ganz schön viel abverlangt.”

  • Aufforderung:
    This is a request or demand you expect to see satisfied. It's most positive use case is probably eine Aufforderung zum Tanzen, i.e. asking someone to dance. Even there, in many contexts social rules suggest it would be impolite not to honor such a request. In another positive use case, it can mean encouragement, like a teacher encouraging students to try something out.
    But this might also express a pretty strong demand, with the possible implication of some legal reaction if not honored. “Meiner Aufforderung, den Hund an die Leine zu nehmen, ist der Beklagte nicht nachgekommen.”

  • Ersuchen:
    Sounds pretty formal. I'd only use the verb in a formal written letter: “Ich ersuche Sie daher, …”. That letter itself may then be referred to as Ersuchen: “Ich habe mein Ersuchen gestern abgeschickt.” I'd say it's quite polite but still moderately determined.

  • Ansuchen:
    Rarely used, but sounds mostly like Ersuchen.

  • Antrag:
    This has very strong legal connotations. The offer to enter a legal agreement is an Antrag, so to a lawyer there are Anträge everywhere whenever he goes shopping. To the rest of us, the word Antrag evokes a picture of some form to be filled out in order to file some request with some official institution. “Ich habe den Antrag auf Kindergeld ausgefüllt.”
    There is also the case of “Er hat mir einen Antrag gemacht” indicating that he asked her to marry him.

  • Auftrag:
    This is often part of a contract. You're asking an artisan to manufature something to your specifications. Or you're asking the garage to repair your car. It is their business to satisfy requests like yours, so this feels pretty neutral.

Looking at your categories now, I'll try to suggest suitable words for each of the cases.

asking for a favor (with degree of friendliness or neutrality),

I'd say that's Bitte, or perhaps Wunsch if you want to convey that it means much to you.

requesting that someone who is responsible for something does that thing (neutral)

Auftrag for a request directed at someone performing their profession.
Antrag if directed at a public office.

demanding that someone who is responsible for something (strong to very strong, or neutral).

Aufforderung is quite determined but polite.
Forderung is even stronger. The word is also used to describe a claim you have e.g. after lending someone money, so this implies even more strongly that you have a right to make such a demand.

(Your question made me think of two songs by Reinhard Mey. One is Ich möchte! which gives examples of very different applications of the verbs mögen, wünschen, fordern. Each can be used in very humble and polite ways as well as very demandin and forceful ones, depending on context. The other is Einen Antrag auf Erteilung eines Antragsformulars. It makes fun of formal requirements when dealing with public administration. The character in that song is trying to obtain an application form (Antrag) required to be granted (Erteilung) a second application form (Antragsformular), applying for a written confirmation (Bestätigung) that some carbon copy (Durchschriftexemplar) has been voided (Nichtigkeit).)

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