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So I was given an example sentence from Baron's 501 German verbs …

It goes as follows "Er denkt daran, seine Kriegserlebnisse zu einem Artikel aufzuarbeiten."

The translation says "He's thinking of working up his experiences in the war to make an article."

But this is vague to me. Not only is "working up" something rare in English, but the only place I've ever heard it was living in the South.

Even then it just meant "to make"

So what does "aufarbeiten" really mean at its core? How can I use it? Is there an alternative that's more commonly used? Are they interchangeable?

As always, please use examples. And try to pick common words so that the examples will be able to help the most people.

Conclusion: So with the help of everyone's very thoughtful and helpful comments and answers I think I've come up with a very accurate meaning of this word. "to work through" in English has a meaning of "to deal with" as in "psychological trauma" and similar things.

Exception: A wonderful poster pointed out that there is yet another context for this verb, which is in chemistry. In this particular instance the correct translation would be "to work up" and not "to work through."

I'm aware that there are a few other German verbs that get translated to this in English as well but I feel it does capture the spirit of it. Thanks to everyones help on this! You're all amazing individuals!

  • As I posted in a comment to an answer, there is also another meaning to aufarbeiten in the context of chemistry (translated correctly only by to work up), so I edited this context into your question. – Jan Apr 2 '15 at 0:54
  • You're helpful as always! :) Now, what you say is true, and in that sense I think "to work up" is very accurate if the context is clearly about chemistry. I'm going to make another edit and make sure everyone gets the most helpful conclusion possible. – Autumn Apr 2 '15 at 1:00
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    "to finish something" is not covered by "aufarbeiten". It would rather be "abarbeiten" ("ab-" connotes the idea of decreasing the outstanding work). – Em1 Apr 2 '15 at 7:34
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In this context, "aufarbeiten" refers to the process of working through any psychological issues of going through a traumatic experience, especially when referring to things involving violence or guilt. It's very commonly used by people who went through a war or similar experiences.

It is closely related to the English-language concept of transforming from victim to survivor, but also often implies earning a form of redemption or catharsis at the same time.

  • Very helpful, thank you! Please take a moment to read my edited conclusion to make sure I'm on the right track. – Autumn Apr 2 '15 at 0:31
  • Also, could "aufarbeiten" be used with stress as well? I think that would qualify under "psychological issues" wouldn't it? – Autumn Apr 2 '15 at 3:35
  • I'm a native speaker of German, but that was a quarter century ago, so some subtleties might be lost. Also, as others pointed out, there may well be regional differences. I don't know if it could be used with stress, but it doesn't really "feel" right to me. Yes, "to work through" is a good approximation, with the added twist that, at least to my understanding, aufarbeiten can imply guilt of some wrongdoing. – Kevin Keane Apr 3 '15 at 18:12
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In the context you provided, others have already explained the meaning.
However, the verb "Aufarbeiten" in a different context can also men "to refresh", "to embellish": "Der Tisch wurde aufgebarbeitet". That means that before, it was somewhat ugly, worn, scratched, and it has been polished, maybe laquered, and is beautiful again.

  • From my research what you say is true. I saw example sentences about restoring an old painting. I'm curious if just about anything can be restored like that though. Like an old TV or PC could be "refurbished" and that would be this verb as well, right? :) – Autumn Apr 2 '15 at 20:01
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»Aufarbeiten« means, that you do or finish some work, that has been outstanding for a long time. I give you some examples:

Mein E-Mail-Posteingang ist jetzt endlich leer, denn ich habe all meine E-Mails aufgearbeitet.
My e-mail inbox finally is empty, because I have executed/worked on all my e-mails.

or

Siehst du diesen Aktenberg auf meinem Schreibtisch? Ich glaube, den werde ich nie ganz aufarbeiten.
Do you see the pile of files on my desk? I think that I never will finish all of them.

But since in the first years or even decades after a war it is hard to deal with the things that happened during the war, the process of clearing all outstanding tasks that has been left from the war, is often done many years or decades after the war has ended. In German language this a typical case to use the word aufarbeiten:

Die Jugoslawien-Kriege sind seit rund 15 Jahren vorbei, aber viele offene Fragen aus dieser Zeit müssen erst noch aufgearbeitet werden.
The Yugoslav Wars are over for about 15 years, but many pending questions from those days still need to be cleared.

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    I'm afraid but this it not completely spot-on. With "experience" the connotation of "aufarbeiten" is a little different. It's derivable from your answer, though. That said, it's not clear if the author meant that the experience still has to be mentally assimilated or if this process is already finished and he merely wants to collect the experiences and adapt them into a book. – Em1 Apr 1 '15 at 19:38
  • There is also an additional meaning in chemistry context: »Ich habe gestern eine Reaktion angesetzt, und arbeite sie heute auf«, meaning I started a reaction yesterday (mixing together everything I need) and today I'm going to add some more stuff to make the reaction stop and add some things that will do magic and get rid of stuff I don't want. – Jan Apr 1 '15 at 20:58
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    For your first two examples i would rather use "abarbeiten" than "aufarbeiten". – Burki Apr 2 '15 at 6:46
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    I fully agree with @Burki - in fact, reading the first two examples explicitly conveys to me that your e-mails and the pile of files contain something tremendously burdening your mind and you have come or want to come to terms with it, by accepting the dire reality of the e-mail/file contents. That is something very different than when you say "abarbeiten", which simply means that you process your backlog (based on my South-West-German vocabulary). – O. R. Mapper Apr 2 '15 at 13:46
  • @Burki I'm afraid I have to repeat my comment from below: "Abarbeiten" means to work off step by step a chain of tasks which are connected with each other and/or in a definite order, e.g. a checklist, an array (software), a mailing list, an instruction manual, etc. "Aufarbeiten" means to work off a pile of tasks which may have accumulated by chance or over time. – Martin Schwehla Apr 5 '15 at 20:38
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"Aufarbeiten" indicates the following

  • There has been an very upsetting experience and you haven't been able to cope with it for a long time. You hurted someone or you were hurted. You clashed with your parents. You needed to leave. Whatever your action did, its consequences follows you now relentlessly in your mind.

  • You finally come to the conclusion that trying to cope with it by doing nothing and not changing the situation is poisoning your heart and mind. To finally really attempt to find your peace, however you do it, is "aufarbeiten".

In my opinion Hubert's Schölnast answer is incorrect: The correct verb for doing menial tasks completely, even if long ago, is "abarbeiten", not "aufarbeiten".

Martin Schwehla convinced be of the correctness, so I corrected the last part.

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    I'm not sure from which end of the dialect continuum you're from, but to me (Bavarian) it is perfectly normal to say Ich habe einen Rückstand aufgearbeitet. But I could also be influenced by us chemists using it ten times a day in the lab. – Jan Apr 2 '15 at 0:47
  • I added a conclusion to my question based off of everyone's responses. Please add a comment to let me know what you think! :) – Autumn Apr 2 '15 at 0:51
  • Einen Rückstand aufarbeiten, ok, aber E-Mails aufarbeiten oder einen dicken Packen aufarbeiten,neee....Westfale. – Thorsten S. Apr 2 '15 at 1:55
  • So you're saying that it absolutely cannot be used with things such as E-Mails or paperwork? It's important that my conclusion is accurate in order to help as many others as possible. I don't wish to give anyone bad information. – Autumn Apr 2 '15 at 3:27
  • @Autumn I think both "aufarbeiten" and "abarbeiten" are fine with emails but they mean to different things. "abarbeiten" means that you read through every mail and respond to them. "Aufarbeiten" means that you work through your mails and improve them or amend them or whatever. – Em1 Apr 2 '15 at 7:38

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