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So I've come to a sentence in my Baron's 501 German Verbs book that goes like this

"Eva versucht, ihre schreckliche Vergangenheit zu verarbeiten."

Eva is trying to work out her terrible past.

I'm tempted to just translate it as "work through" here too but in a previous question of mine...

"Er denkt daran, seine Kriegserlebnisse zu einem Artikel aufzuarbeiten."

"He's thinking of working through his experiences in the war to make an article."

Now I understand that "aufarbeiten" means "to work through" as in, it's no longer burden psychologically. You have resolved your issues.

So I'm wondering, what's the difference? What really separates these two verbs in usage? Could you switch them in both sentences? How would that change the meaning?

Please give dual example sentences (switching the two verbs with each other) and pick common words (or the words already used) so that more people can learn and benefit from the answer. :)

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The basic meaning of verarbeiten is to use raw materials to produce something more elaborate, where the focus lies on the transformation of substances to a new substance:

Sie verarbeitete die Zutaten zu einem Kuchenteig.

This meaning has also been applied to psychological processes of coping with traumatic experiences, as they, too, imply a development and the aspect of change for the better.

Aufarbeiten, on the other hand, basically means working or finishing off a task and the material upon which the task is bearing. So, the focus lies on getting something out of the way:

Er arbeitete alle Akten auf, die sich auf seinem Schreibtisch angesammelt hatten.

(This meaning of aufarbeiten is understood and common in the whole of the German language area, whereas another meaning, refurbishing or renovating something, is not; to my knowledge, you would use it mainly in the nothern half of Germany.)

As Kilian Foth already said, both your examples are well chosen. Whereas both verarbeiten and aufarbeiten are used for coming to terms with one's past, the former explicitly refers to a mental process which is active but not necessarily shows on the outside:

Eva versucht, ihre schreckliche Vergangenheit zu verarbeiten.

The general idea is to come to terms with a traumatic impact in order to neutralize or contain it one way or another so it can't any longer do damage to a persons mind and soul on a subconscious level, whereas it is not possible to clear the trauma itself.

Aufarbeiten rather signifies an action where the past in some way materializes you have or want to cope with, by writing a book about it, discussing it publicly, arranging and commenting memorablila, etc., so you can close the case afterwards without remorse:

Er überlegt, seine Kriegserlebnisse in einem Artikel aufzuarbeiten.

"Aufarbeiten" doesn't necessarily carry the implication of a psychological trauma, it may also just be a process of "sorting out" one's memory in order to get a clear picture of what previously had consisted of a mashup of memories without consistent chronology, not clearly related to facts and figures. Of course, this can always have a kind of cathartic impact as it is intended in a medical context. From this viewpoint, as Kilian Foth already pointed out, "aufarbeiten" and "verarbeiten" are two sides of the same coin.

This is why, listening to and reading everyday communication, you wouldn't always be able to pinpoint them to a special meaning as distinguished here, as they are often used generally as synonyms without further consideration.

  • So, psychologically, using "verarbeiten" means that you're "coping" or "managing" or "dealing with" something, often internally. It is still there but you're handling it, keeping it in check. Whereas, using "aufarbeiten" means you are "working through" or "resolving" something so that is no longer an issue, often externally. Therefore, One could "verarbeiten" something and eventually "aufarbeiten" it. Is this correct? – Autumn Apr 4 '15 at 22:39
  • @Autumn I don't think it is part of the genuine medical terminology, but especially "verarbeiten" is used in popular psychological literature to subsume the ways of coping with traumatic experiences. The difference in use you summarized is derived from the basic meanings of those two terms, and, as Kilian Foth mentioned in his answer, would mirror two different psychological approaches to the same problem, although in everyday communication, you wouldn't always be able to pinpoint them to a method as they are often used generally as synonyms without further consideration. – Martin Schwehla Apr 5 '15 at 6:30
  • @Autumn "Aufarbeiten" doesn't necessarily carry the implication of a psychological trauma, it may also be a process of "sorting out" one's memory in order to get a clear picture of what previously had consisted of a mashup of memories not clearly related to chronology, facts, and figures. Of course, this will always have a kind of relieving mental impact. I will add this in an edit to my answer. – Martin Schwehla Apr 5 '15 at 6:48
  • @Autumn I think your interpretation of "verarbeiten" is very good here as its psychological intention is, in general, to loosen or avert the grip which the trauma is exerting on mind an soul of a person, often by reinstating it into the memory from which it had slipped as a kind of unwitting self-defence, whereas the trauma itself will always remain present in one way or another. – Martin Schwehla Apr 5 '15 at 7:22
  • Thank you for being patient with all my questions. I really have a hard time learning new words without asking lots of them. Unfortunately, I still have a few more questions about their non-psychological usage but you've already been a great help and I don't want to waste anymore of your time. Thanks again! :) – Autumn Apr 5 '15 at 15:26
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The meaning is rather different. The principal difference in connotation is in the focus on different elements of the situation.

"verarbeiten" focuses on the experiencer. The notion is that some experienced something that is hard to bear; after "verarbeiten", that individual hopes to be able to function as well as before, or at least better than directly after the trauma.

"aufarbeiten" means the same (since it is also used non-psychologically for simply refurbishing some piece of furniture). In the mental sense it focuses slightly more on the result of the work done: after "aufarbeiten", there should be something tangible (a text, a sculpture, maybe even a new outfit that someone splurged on therapeutically...) into which the experience was somehow transformed.

Your example sentences are actually fine for demonstrating the difference as they are. The difficulty is, of course, that emotional healing and transformatory processing may go together, and in fact often do. That is why these words can so often describe not different situations, but different aspects of the same situation.

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