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To whom it may concern

is a common opening statement (in an formal e-mail) in English, especially when you do not know the gender of your audience. I am looking for the proper equivalent for it in German.

I have found some links which are recommending: “Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren”. However, I am skeptical that it exactly means “To whom it may concern”, because of two reasons:

  1. It is a addressing both ladies and gentlemen (plural). However, I am addressing a single person.
  2. It is mostly like: “Dear ladies and gentlemen”.
  • Answers in comments and digressing discussions have been moved to chat. Please use comments only to effect improvements to the question or point to related questions and other external resources. Also please note that it does not matter for the validity or quality of this question whether the English phrase is a good or modern choice. It is just a starting point to describe what this question is about. – Wrzlprmft Apr 24 at 8:07

10 Answers 10

34

You are right. The correct translation of

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren

is

(dear) ladies and gentlemen

So, »to whom it may concern« seems not to match with »Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren«. But there is a problem with the correct German translation of »to whom it may concern« which is:

Wen auch immer es betrifft

The problem is, that this phrase is extremely impolite.

In »sehr geehrte Damen und Herren« you use a grammatical feature, that is very old and can be found in other languages (like Latin for example) as distinct grammatical case, but in German it is just a stylistic feature: The vocative. This case/feature is used for the only purpose to directly address the recipient of your message. You can't use a vocative for anything else. And you use it to honor the recipient of the message. It is very polite and friendly to start a conversation by addressing the other person directly using a vocative. This is like spreading a red carpet in front of him or her.

But in »wen auch immer es betrifft« you do not address the person you want to talk to. The word »wen« is in accusative case, and it addresses a third person, i. e. anybody else but the person you really want to talk to. This is, as if the person you want to talk to stands directly in front of you, but you look over her or him and shout to the crowd that surrounds you. This is very unfriendly, not to say aggressive.

So, although »wen auch immer es betrifft« is the best matching German translation of »to whom it may concern«, but you never should use it. Use the friendly and respectful phrase »sehr geehrte Damen und Herren« instead.

Btw: I also think that the English phrase is impolite for the same reasons (my personal opinion).

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  • 18
    A more accurate translation of To whom it may concern is probably An diejenigen, die es betreffen mag or An diejenigen, die es betreffen könnte. But that doesn't make it more idiomatic or polite. – RHa Apr 21 at 8:55
  • 2
    The English phrase is a very common formulation used in most references. It is evidently not impolite in English. zB. "to whom it may concern: the company who gets this man to work for them will be very lucky indeed" – p6steve Apr 21 at 20:46
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    I wouldn't say "wen auch immer es betrifft" is "the correct German translation". In fact it's the literal translation, but doesn't convey the meaning – without knowledge of English, a German speaker wouldn't understand that it's a formal address in a letter – amadeusamadeus Apr 21 at 23:07
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    To my ear the literal translation "wen auch immer es betrifft" is offensive because it sounds like "I don't care (to research) to whom it may concern". Especially the "wen auch immer" part sounds like a teenager saying an indifferent "whatever". It would be less offensive if it could convey that you don't know whom you should address, which "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren" does by virtue of beeing established for exactly that reason (as is the English phrase in its language sphere). – Nobody Apr 22 at 14:53
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    I disagree that "Wen auch immer..." is a correct or most accurate translation. It is also not a literal translation, as "wen auch immer" is "whomever" (in the sense of whatever/I don't care) rather than "whom". The poster maybe used "wen auch immer" instead of "wen" because "Wen es betrifft" sounds a bit strange. Still, "Wen es betrifft" would be a more correct (and literal) translation, and it would be somewhat less impolite. However, I agree that "Sehr geehrte..." is the accurate translation. – mafu Apr 23 at 13:08
14

Short answer:

There is no direct equivalent for To whom it may concern in the German speaking part of the world.

Of course there are other things to write on top of documents, but it depends on the document what formula you would actually use.

General letter:

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren

Job reference:

Arbeitszeugnis

In contrast, job application:

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren

Certain types of communication by government bodies etc.:

Bekanntmachung

And so on...

(I make this a community wiki, so who ever might be concerned can add more examples.)

  • 13
    Just to avoid confusion I would emphasise that "Arbeitszeugnis" and "Bekanntmachung" are of course not salutations like "To whom it may concern". Rather, in these examples the salutation is dropped completely and a heading is used. These are also not exclusive: Many letters use both a heading or subject line as well as a salutation. – Emil Apr 21 at 16:45
  • @Emil Exactly. The phrase is often simply omitted since it adds nothing. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 22 at 16:10
12

You're saying that you're sceptical because it's plural and you're addressing a single person. However, I think that's the actual misunderstanding, because in German formal writing there are basically only two scenarios regardless of the number of addressees:

A) You knew the name of the person you write to. Then you use his or her name.

B) You don't know the name of the person. Then you're in fact addressing the organization as a whole in plural by

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,

because, e.g., you would expect the front desk who reads the mail first to forward it, the department secretary to pass it on to the responsible employee and so on. Plural is totally okay here, even if there'll be one single person reading it in the end!

I think there are only a few cases where you write to a single person (i.e. not to an organization) and don't know his/her name. In this really rare occasion, you could use:

Sehr geehrte Dame, sehr geehrter Herr,

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    This is not commonly used, better use the plural form! – Arne Burmeister Apr 23 at 6:09
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    @ArneBurmeister Says who? In my personal experience the singular form is regularly used in cases, where (1) it is clear, that exactly one person is addressed and (2) the addressed person's name and gender is unknown. – I'm with Monica Apr 23 at 11:48
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    @ArneBurmeister I stated that the usage scenario is limited to the case that I'm with Monica describes and thus, naturally, is not as frequent as the plural form. However, given this scenario, it is the most common phrase from my point of view. Did you read the full answer? – amadeusamadeus Apr 23 at 13:26
  • @I'mwithMonica just from my experience from 50 years as a native. But A) is of course the best option if applicable. For the rare case you described as B) you are right, but you mostly don’t know who and how many are reading it. Especially as the English phrase is typically used in job application scope. – Arne Burmeister Apr 23 at 14:14
  • @ArneBurmeister this is why I wrote: Then you're in fact addressing the organization as a whole in plural, because, e.g., you would expect the front desk who reads the mail first to forward it, the department secretary to pass it on to the responsible employee and so on. Plural is totally okay here, even if there'll be one single person reading it in the end! I thought it was obvious that with plural I was referring to Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren. Anyways, I will add it explicitly. – amadeusamadeus Apr 24 at 16:46
4

From above:

There is no direct equivalent for To Whom It May Concern: in the German speaking part of the world.

It would appear, at least according to a cursory search, that the English speaking world isn't too fond of it either, but one can find a few specific examples (emph. added) mentioned:

... there are four times when it’s actually OK to use this greeting: in letters of recommendation or reference, formal complaints lodged with a company, letters of introduction, and letters of interest or prospecting.

In my experience, letters of recommendation are a science unto their own, but the other cases do definitely sound like "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren" is exactly appropriate.

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    Good point! I only know the phrase from recommendations, which on the other hand are uncommon in Germany. We mostly use certificates of employment “Arbeitszeugnis” which do not have a opening statement at all. – Arne Burmeister Apr 23 at 6:26
3

To me »Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren« is not a solution because it does not account for a diverse gender. Even if it did, in formal communications I almost always do not care about the recipient's gender, so I do not see a point in including that anyway. Therefore, I have recently settled with:

Sehr geehrter Empfänger

If you consider the inherent male linguistic gender to still be a problem, this might not be a solution for you.

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    To be honest, I never saw this in my life. Maybe I am a little old fashioned but I would never use that form. – Arne Burmeister Apr 23 at 6:20
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    This does not account for the diverse gender and even removes the female salutation. So this seems to be a step back. The municipality of Hannover (first Google result for me when looking for something "official") recommends the underscore/gender gap as ungendered salutation of choice in official communication ("Sehr geehrte Empfänger_innen"). hannover.de/Leben-in-der-Region-Hannover/Verwaltungen-Kommunen/… – Eike Pierstorff Apr 23 at 11:18
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    @EikePierstorff The cited source also does not account for diverse genders, it is exclusively about not omitting male or female references. It is totally about inclusiveness in a binary gender concept, not about inclusion of everyone in a multi-gender-concept. – I'm with Monica Apr 23 at 11:51
  • @EikePierstorff In addition to the comment above, for me "Empfänger" is gender-neutral. I do not wish to open pandora's box here discussing that assumption, though :) For that reason, I stated in my answer that it may not be applicable if you have different assumptions. – ComFreek Apr 23 at 15:52
  • @EikePierstorff According to Langenscheidt Empfänger means: someone, who receives something. As someone is neutral, Empfänger is also neutral. For me it's somehow smilare to Gast. Es gibt keine Gastin. – Infinity May 25 at 11:38
1

As many others already wrote there is no direct translation. I also agree that most of the proposed translations sound either odd or rather impolite.

I am also not quite sure whether you are looking for an opening for a note on which you do not necessarily expect any feedback or for a letter/mail on which certain people in the group of recipients are expected to react.

For the first case, I wouldn't bother too much and just an appropriate opening, like "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren" "Hallo zusammen".

For the second case, be aware that today many people do not read their mail carefully anyway. So giving them a chance to drop out at the first line might lower your chances of getting a useful reply. Hence I would use an opening like

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren! Mit der Bitte um Kenntnisnahme und gegebenenfalls Bearbeitung/Antwort. .......

That is a rather formal sounding phrase that could be translated as: Dear Sir or Madam! Please note and act/reply accordingly where required.

Slightly off-topic:

  • ComFreek's suggestion of using "Sehr geehrter Empfänger" sounds quite impersonal to me. It is something I would expect from an advertising letter that is dropped in every mailbox in the street and dumped before reaching the main door.
  • My solution when addressing to a group of people that uses one mail address, like service@blabla.bla: "Liebes IT-Team". That's how I start my mails to our IT dept. They are colleagues, but then again I use the formal "Sie" for most of them. So that opening gives me the feeling of neither sounding too aloof nor too informal.
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  • I don't see how "Sehr geehrter Empfänger" is any less personal than "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren". Could you perhaps comment on that? – ComFreek Apr 23 at 7:44
  • Admittedly the difference is quite subtle and probably not general (as I wrote, that's how it sounds to me). Imho the former is directed to a recipient that you know in principle (like one certain company that you want to contact) but you do not have a personal contact yet. The latter sounds to me more unspecific, as if you had dropped a message in a bottle or sent your letter to a dozen of recipients and wait who might react. – Mr.Bum Apr 24 at 10:12
0

My proposal, if what you have to announce can be summarized in a single sentence:

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,

es interessiert Sie vielleicht, dass (summary). (details following in next paragraphs).

The decision, whether your issue is relevant for the receiver of the letter or mail, has to be made by the receiver anyway. Wen es betreffen mag sounds similarly annoying as the e-mail footers urging the addressee to delete erroneously addressed mails.

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A single person you don't know how to address can be reasonably addressed with a simple "Hallo", or with a greeting mentioning both genders, e.g. "Lieber Kollege(in)" (if it's indeed a colleague).

If you want to express the fact that the person may not be concerned by the info you are providing, you can start with "Zur info", which is roughly the equivalent of "FYI".

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    “To whom it may concern” is very formal, "Hallo" is very informal, so not a good translation. – PiedPiper Apr 21 at 20:11
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If you write a document that will be presented to an uknown party you can use Zur Vorlage (literally "For submission") instead of the greeting (instead of Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren).

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-1

As a native English speaker, I have to disagree with the premise of the question:

"'To whom it may concern' is a common opening statement (in an formal e-mail) in English..."

This is not a proper way to begin a formal letter. It is anonymous, bureaucratic, and offensive. It is what you would see in an email addressed to many people unknown to the sender, that he doesn't want to know and doesn't care about.

A formal salutation in English to unknown people would be "Ladies and Gentlemen:". Note that this is also the way to begin a speech to people you do not know. In the past, this was "Sirs:" but we now recognize that the person who sees the letter may be of either gender. The equivalent in German, of course, is "Damen und Herren:". If I were sending an formal email to a company in Germany to try to establish a business relationship, I would use that. The "Very honored" part may be required in Germany.

However, there may be rules for German correspondence of which I am unaware. Perhaps "To whom it may concern" or its equivalent is acceptable in Germany, but it is rarely seen in English except when the writer is trying to sound official and overbearing. It is also used for job references, but that is outside the scope of the question.

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  • 1
    That doesn't really answer the question, does it? – Robert Apr 23 at 17:02
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    Certainly it does. Do not use the equivalent of "To whom it may concern," use the equivalent of "Ladies and Gentlemen." I had to make it clear at the start that the premise of the question is mistaken, and as other answers suggest, the German equivalent of "To whom it may concern" is offensive. – Wastrel Apr 24 at 15:37

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