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In German, a Gretchenfrage is:

Compound of Gretchen (diminutive of the given name Margarete) and "Frage" "question". In reference to Goethe's "Faust" (published 1808), where the character of Gretchen asks the protagonist, who is secretly in league with the devil, ''wie hast du's mit der Religion?'' "what is your take on religion?".

[...]

  1. Any question going directly to the core of an issue.
  2. A crucial question that usually has a difficult or unpleasant answer.

So you could say, for example: "Wie hast/hältst du's mit dem Kapitalismus?" "What's your take on capitalism?" (Often used when referring to a somewhat controversial topic.)

Is there a similar idiom in English?

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    What's wrong with "What's your take"? It's perfectly idiomatic. – Hot Licks May 13 '18 at 12:37
  • @HotLicks yes, but "what's your take" doesn't imply that the question is honing in on the core of a difficult/unpleasant/controversial issue. – mb21 May 13 '18 at 12:39
  • 'hone in on the core': there is an idiom for that too. What's your take is very apropos. – lbf May 13 '18 at 12:41
  • Well yes, but I would want to use it as the title of an article about a somewhat controversial topic. "Wie hast du's mit X?" Currently, the best I could come up with was "Let's talk about X", but I was wondering whether there is really no analog to the Gretchenfrage. – mb21 May 13 '18 at 12:47
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    Where do you stand on ___ may be close, in English. How do existing translations handle it? "Take" is probably a little too informal. – Xanne May 13 '18 at 14:11
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This is a very famous expression and I'd wager a lot that there is no direct expression billing all the slots it fills in German: a seemingly naive person (girl) asking a seemingly harmless, everyday question that nevertheless cuts to the chase of a very important issue and will expose vital information from the asked and is therefore unwelcome, difficult to answer truthfully, or likely to elicit an answer that might not fly with the asker…

It is not only about the information itself but also about the interactive dynamic between asker and asked.

The closest expression that comes to my mind that ticks most boxes for:

Gewissensfrage – Gretchenfrage – heikle Frage (von deren Beantwortung alles abhängt)

entscheidende Frage – Frage, an der alles hängt – Gretchenfrage – Hauptfrage – Kardinalfrage – Kernfrage – Schlüsselfrage – wichtig(st)e Frage
(from Openthesausrus)

(Translations: Question of conscience – crucial question – tricky question (on whose answer everything depends)
decisive question - question on which everything depends – crucial question – main question – cardinal question – core question – key question – (most) important question)

would be:

this is a litmus test.

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The 'idiom' in german exists solely because of Goethe's usage in Faust; 'Wie hälst du's mit [..]' would otherwise seem awkward and quaint. It's more of a quotation evoking the literary original.

so what you need is an English phrase that can be altered to contain a question, and that still resonates with some well known work of literature or other medium.

Some proposals (i wrote some clue to the source in parantheses, but if you don't know them they are unfit anyways):

  • To [X] or not to [X], that is the question... (Shakespeare)
  • Do you take [X] to be your lawful [Y]? (Wedding vows)
  • Will somebody think of the [X]? (Simpsons)
  • Don't ask what [X] can do for you, ask what you can do for [X]. (Kennedy)
  • You have to ask yourself one question: Do I feel [X]? - Well do you, punk? (Dirty Harry)
  • You want [x]? You can't handle [X]! (A few good men)
  • Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the [X] of them all? (Grimm)
  • Et tu [X]? (Caesar)
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The German usage of Gretchenfrage may preserve something of its original weight in Goethe’s Faust, say, concerning some fundamental question of human existence or society, or it may have become so semantically lightened that it may designate any question a writer wishes to describe as difficult or important:

Gretchenfrage: Lassen sich effiziente Marketingkampagnen tatsächlich planen?
Vital question: Can efficient marketing campaigns actually be planned? — Harald Reil, “Erfolgskontrolle”, GENIOS WirtschaftsWissen Nr. 04, 10.04.2013.

While it might be amusing to substitute this question for Goethe’s original,this quite mercantile version does point out the difficulty of your question. An English equivalent needs to determine which of the many aspects of the German expression are at play in a given context. For instance, I chose vital to suggest the importance the writer wishes to convey, even though the question here is merely a rhetorical one.

If a Gretchenfrage is one that penetrates to the heart of the matter, then it can be called a crucial question:

Yet the crucial question to which this general conception gives rise is the epistemic one raised by Berkeley and Kant: if all that is ever given in experience is ideas, and reality is not an idea or a relation among ideas, how can we ever know whether our ideas correspond with reality? — G. Soffer, Husserl and the Question of Relativism, 2012, 60.

Here is the crucial question. From a practical point of view, society must have some way of protecting itself and its members against abuses committed in the name of the free exercise of religion. And it is the function of the state to provide this protection. — John Courtney Murray, J. Leon Hooper, Religious Liberty: Catholic Struggles with Pluralism, 1993, 151.

Or perhaps pivotal:

Yet we might also say that some ancient Greek philosophers already asked the pivotal question. In The Laws, Plato seeks to demonstrate the existence of the gods with the argument from design: “Why, to begin with, think of the earth, and sun, and planets, and everything! …” — William Sims Bainbridge, Virtual Sociocultural Convergence, 2016, 233.

In informal contexts, this expression and its inflated permutations are quite common:

For a lifetime, my father, when presented with a deep question, probably from a child's mind, would respond, “well, that's a 64 dollar question”. — Hugh Mann, Spiritfarmer Aftermath, 2013.

As the German expression, a $64 question preserves a cultural reference, though hardly belletristic: this amount was the highest prize awarded on a popular radio quiz show in the 1940s; its revival on modern television raised the amount to $64,000, and virtually any large amount of money can substitute.

Since there is no single German Gretchenfrage beyond Goethe’s original, there can be no single English equivalent. Any adjective of impotance, urgency, complexity, or incisiveness can modify question depending on which quality a writer has in mind.

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There is a very similar idiom in English: (someone's) take on (something)

Someone's perspective, opinion, or idea(s) about something.

As in:

Mr. Huxley, what's your take on the recent announcement from the White House? My take on the problem is that we need to devote more of our resources to expanding our marketing campaign.

TFD

  • changed my answer ... if no help i shall delete and leave for others – lbf May 13 '18 at 12:39
  • I think the OP answered their own question and you have simply documented it. No need to delete, in my opinion - just needs a green tick. – Nigel J May 13 '18 at 14:10
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According to James Main Dixon, English speakers are often fond of asking,

  • What's the verdict? (Yes or no?)
  • What is your verdict on this matter? (This or that?)
  • I would like to hear your verdict regarding capitalism. (Do you find it agreeable, or not? And on what do you base your judgment?)

From Etymonline:

...alteration of Middle English verdit (c. 1300), "a jury's decision in a case," from Anglo-French verdit (Old French voirdit) "sworn testimony, affidavit; judgment, written record of a verdict," literally "a true saying or report," from ver, veir "true" (from PIE root *were-o- "true, trustworthy") + dit, past participle of dire "to say" (from PIE root *deik- "to show," also "pronounce solemnly"). Spelling influenced by Medieval Latin verdictum "a verdict."

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