Meaning and usage of "aufarbeiten"

German Language Asked by Autumn on December 23, 2020

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!

5 Answers

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.

Correct answer by Kevin Keane on December 23, 2020

Especially if used in southern Germany/upper Bavaria, "etwas aufarbeiten" could also mean to damage something to the point of unusability, althought this is subject to local changes.

See this bavarian dictionary:

  • stark beanspruchen, verschleißen (…muasst du a jeds Spuizeig aufarbeiten?)
    • auf Hochdeutsch: ... musst auch jedes Spielzeug "aufarbeiten"? (Spielzeug refers to any kind of gadget)
  • sich zerstören, sich kaputt machen (…wuist di für de andern aufarbatn?)
    • auf Hochdeutsch: ... willst Du Dich für die anderen "aufarbeiten"?

Answered by Mechatronical Engineer on December 23, 2020

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.

Answered by Burki on December 23, 2020

"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.

Answered by Thorsten S. on December 23, 2020

»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.


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.

Answered by Hubert Schölnast on December 23, 2020

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