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So as I continue learning more verbs from my Baron's 501 German Verbs book, I ran into more verbs with similar meaning.

The following example sentences:

"Am Drehbuch wurde zu viel von zu vielen umgearbeitet."
Book's Translation: "Too many worked at rewriting the script."

"Das Material muss neu bearbeitet werden."
Book's Translation: "The material has to be revised."

I'm always looking for the best English translation for German verbs. I currently think that "to work on" really does accurately translate both "umarbeiten" and "bearbeiten" but the problem with this is the subtle meanings are lost.

So that's why I'm asking these questions.

  1. What's the basic meaning of each of the verbs?
  2. What's the difference between them?
  3. When can you use one and not the other?
  4. Is "to work on" an accurate translation in most cases?

Important addition! An awesome member here has brought up a good point in adding "überarbeiten" to the list because of it's closely related meaning, please add an addition to your answer for this verb as well.

Please give example sentences and if possible, use the same example and simply exchange the verbs in the sentence. This is helpful to show the differences but sometimes it just isn't possible so I will understand if you can't.

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Please keep in mind that the meanings of bearbeiten and umarbeiten tend to blend into each other the more you're thinking of really distinctive examples; that's mainly due to special contextual and regional habits of using them, although from their basic meanings, you can quite well distinguish them. I will include überarbeiten because it is also important in that context.

Bearbeiten basically means to work (on) sth. You take a workpiece and work on it. Whether it already had been worked on previously or not is not a primary concern, but the meaning shifts to revising or editing the more abstract and intellectual a workpiece is:

Er bearbeitete den Marmorblock mit wuchtigen Schlägen, bis eine rohe Figur entstand. (worked)

Das Drehbuch musste mehrmals bearbeitet werden, bis es den Produzenten gefiel. (revised)

But here it is getting tricky, because you might as well hear or read:

Das Drehbuch musste mehrmals umgearbeitet / überarbeitet werden, bis es den Produzenten gefiel.

In the sense of "revised", "bearbeiten" more often signifies changing a workpiece in order to achieve the goal the maker of the workpiece had originally in mind but couldn't yet accomplish. To say something is being changed for a new purpose, you would rather use umarbeiten, but in some cases, and if only minor changes are involved, also "bearbeiten" will be used for this:

Die Kurzgeschichte wurde für den Hörfunk bearbeitet.

There are, as Ingmar already pointed out, uses of "bearbeiten" which don't fit into that scheme:

Der Antrag konnte nicht bearbeitet werden, weil Unterlagen fehlten. (processed)

Sie können dieses Foto auf Ihrem Computer mit unterschiedlichen Programmen bearbeiten. (edit)

Er bearbeitete sie so lange, bis sie sich breitschlagen ließ, mit ihm zu kommen. (pester)

Umarbeiten basically means to remodel or reshape something already accomplished to fit a new purpose:

Der Mantel wurde zu einer Jacke umgearbeitet. (made over)

Das Drehbuch wurde mehrmals umgearbeitet, bis aus einem Kriegsdrama eine Komödie geworden war. (adapted, remade)

Überarbeiten explicitly means revising something in order to make it better, or just different:

Der Plan musste überarbeitet werden, weil sich Teile des Geländes als sumpfig herausstellten.

In new editions of books you will find the terms bearbeitete Auflage, neubearbeitete / neu bearbeitete Aufl. (where you can choose whether it would be a pleonasm or an oxymoron), and überarbeitete Auflage, used not always in keeping with the actual extent of editing, but (to my experience) hardly ever umgearbeitet.

  • Nice examples. I agree that überarbeiten is important in this context as well. – Ingmar Apr 6 '15 at 7:32
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Both verbs are related to arbeiten, i.e. to work. Bearbeiten simply means to work on something, it's usually an open-ended process:

Der Bildhauer bearbeitet den Marmorblock. Mit Photoshop kann man Bilder bearbeiten. Der Beamte konnte den Akt nicht bearbeiten. Der Verdächtige wurde vom Polizisten bearbeitet, bis er die Tat zugab.

There are numerous English translations possible, including to edit, to adapt, to work (on), to attend to, to hew or (my last example) to lean on somebody.

Umarbeiten, on the other hand, usually means to perform (substantial) work in order to create something new, significantly changing it in the process (whereas bearbeiten can also mean some light editing, e.g.)

Der Roman wurde zu einem Theaterstück umgearbeitet. Die Oper wurde für Kinder verkürzt, vereinfacht und zu einem Märchen umgearbeitet. Sie wollte das Sommerkleid zu einem Rock umarbeiten. Da der Text in den Beratungen umgearbeitet wurde, weicht der Gemeinsame Standpunkt in einigen Punkten vom Vorschlag der Kommission ab.

In English you'd use to rework, to revise, to adapt, to rewrite, to remake, to revamp.

Überarbeiten simply means to revise, to work over, to overhaul, to rework, to adapt, to re-engineer. It means working again on something that had been worked on already in order to improve it or eliminate mistakes.

Das Unternehmen ließ seinen Internetauftritt überarbeiten. Das Produktdesign wurde überarbeitet und verbessert.

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