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Just recently I was wondering on how to best translate the figurative German word 'Fingerübung'

In particular I am referring to the second meaning in the authorative German dictionary duden1, which translates to

b) small/easy piece of an exercise (translation: me)

In my research, I stumpled upon the verbatim translation finger exercise, however it only seems to be valid for the first meaning in German, i.e. its meaning being limited to music2.

I also encountered the phrase apprentice piece but I was not able to find water-proof resources or a confirmative entry of the dictionaries I know of.

So my question remains, is there an equivalent idiom (preferably a single word, if there is one for this purpose) in the English language that can be used figuratively in the sense that it refers to a small, easy exercise which neither needs much time nor effort to solve or complete3?


Footnotes & References:

1 https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Fingeruebung

2 vide, e.g. https://www.lexico.com/definition/finger_exercise or https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/finger-exercises resp.

3 To give an example for the use of the word in the German language. For instance, one can refer to small, i.e. not out-of-the-oridnary tricky, calculus problems such as solving an integral or computing the derivative of a well-behaved function as a 'Fingerübung' (when the student itself attends a lecture on 'Mathematical Methods in Physics', in which tasks like integrals or derivatives are seen as preliminaries.)

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    I don't think 'finger exercise' is used metaphorically in English, and I don't think there's a term that corresponds to a rote exercise that is metaphorical. You can simply say 'like a finger exercise' to get the idea. There are nearby things, like 'cake walk' (which is a very simple dance, but that leans towards just meaning 'very easy', and has no connotation of 'exercise to learn' – Mitch Sep 27 '20 at 23:59
  • @Diazenylium pls see my answer, which asks for a qualification on your academic/textbook focus? Also, in fact after all this commentary and answers, EdwinA has given the simple correct answer :O – Fattie Sep 28 '20 at 14:11
  • You can’t “come across a thought” in English (unless you read it in a book, and hardly then. “I was wondering” may be way you intended. (I am intrigued by your German original — Ein Gedenk in Kopf ankommen ist, or what?) – David Sep 28 '20 at 19:17
  • @David I don't think "come across a thought" is a mistake that stems from some German idiom. The OP misunderstood the Duden page, so might not be German at all. There are ways to translate "to come across" pretty closely, but they don't really work for thoughts, or would be a novel metaphor. – Nobody Sep 28 '20 at 19:24
  • @Nobody — but I’m genuinely interested in the German language, despite being a scientist and not a language “natural”. What is the idiom? (And I do have a copy of Duden, but backwards look-up is difficult.) – David Sep 28 '20 at 19:28

13 Answers 13

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I'd say "warm-up problem" or "warm-up exercise" might be a good translation if you're using it in school or college courses.

From Merriam-Webster:

Warm-up: a preparatory activity or procedure.

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    Thank you very much for your contribution, in fact the phrase warm-up or warm-up problem/exercise comes closest so far of what I aimed for myself when I tried to translate it. In particular, I initially thought of Fingerübung as something which is indeed easy, quick and without much effort to do but nonetheless somewhat rewarding still. Other suggestions are also great translations, but many seem to imply a more or less negative / disapproving connotation. In the sense that they are not really worth solving or working on in the first place. – Diazenylium Sep 28 '20 at 20:35
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    I’d add that “warm up” by itself May even be sufficient – Unrelated Oct 1 '20 at 3:51
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"Toy problem" or "toy example" might work, and is often used in academic contexts. It's often used to describe a demonstration (such as in a textbook or something presented by a professor), not necessarily something that students would work on themselves, but I think it can be used for either situation.

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  • Lifelong native speaker of American English here - perhaps this phrase is common in academic contexts, but I have never heard anyone use either version. – Alex M Sep 28 '20 at 23:01
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    In mathematics at least, "toy problem" means "an unrealistic but easily-understood example". It doesn't mean its solution is easily obtained. – teedyay Sep 29 '20 at 9:59
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    @AlexM I think it's common in some academic contexts, mostly math. This seems to be the area of the OP, so that fits. – Nobody Sep 29 '20 at 11:33
  • @teedyay I think that fits just fine, technical music exercises are just that - easy to understand, but hard to execute properly. Like if you are playing a "real" piece, primarily, you are thinking about how you should play it. With an étude/finger exercise the piece makes it very clear how it's supposed to be played, but it's (very) hard to do that. – Nobody Sep 29 '20 at 11:40
  • @Nobody It's common also outside math, e.g. in physics. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 30 '20 at 5:24
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As I said in a comment under Nobody's answer I think the figurative use of Fingerübung is idiomatic and expressive, even though the Duden entry (b) is not describing it (but a piece of music written or played for the purpose of exercise, an étude).

It turns out that there is an exact English equivalent, the five-finger exercise, which can be used figuratively as well.

Other suggested translations like child's play or easy-peasy miss the learning or preparatory aspect which is usually present when Fingerübung is used. And if one wanted to express child's play one could use the exact German counter-piece Kinderspiel instead of Fingerübung.

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I'll submit child's play as a term that means an easy exercise or task in the context you've given in part 3.

Example: That calculus problem was child's play compared to the functions we're studying in advanced physics.

It also came up on Reverso for Fingerübung with this example:

Mit diesem, auf dem m2webalizer basierenden Produkt von mquadr.at wird die erfolgreiche Einrichtung des Internetzuganges zur lockeren Fingerübung.

With this service product, based on the technology of mquadr.at's m2webalizer, a successful internet setup becomes childsplay [sic].

In English, this term is two words, child's play, referring to something so simple, a child could do it.

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    That doesn't even come close to the german meaning. – Polygnome Sep 28 '20 at 13:09
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    @Fattie Because the original meaning of the metaphor is an exercise for a musician, as a warm-up or routine exercise. In that context is it not child's play (which has a derisive note) even though it may be simple. Child's play also completely misses the warm-up aspect. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Sep 28 '20 at 17:28
  • As a native german speaker I would however like to point out that the german phrase in the answer tries to be an euphemism around "even the most technically illterate person is able to set up their internet with our product" trying to avoid exactly that derision directly but conveying it indirectly. I would argue that the second meaning in Duden transfers pretty well to 'Childs Play' and it is neither supposed to include any "warm up" or "musical" aspect which is reserved for the first meaning. I would use it in the "everyone is able to do it" meaning any day outside of the musical context. – Yanick Salzmann Sep 28 '20 at 22:04
  • ... well actually as a native german speaker I would never use that word outside of a musical context because I'd argue most people have no idea what you are talking about, but otherwise it is what I said before. – Yanick Salzmann Sep 28 '20 at 22:09
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    For me as native german speaker the difference between "Fingerübung" and "Child's play" is that "Child's play" is something that anyone can easily do without any preparation, while "Fingerübung" is something that is easy to do for someone that has experience in the matter but maybe rather difficult for someone without experience in the matter. But I suppose that there are also german speakers that would use "Fingerübung" the same as "Child's play", the meaning is not really fixed. – Stefan Korn Oct 1 '20 at 6:30
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In short, Fingerübung translates just fine as finger exercise, using it figuratively is awkward/unusual in both languages.

The longer explanation is that you misunderstood the Duden. Fingerübung is not a common term to start with (that's what the 1/5 bars next to Häufigkeit mean) and then it's a specific term from the area of "Musik" which you can find next to "Gebrauch" (usage). Both meanings listed on the Duden page refer to playing instruments, where you are literally practicing finger movements ("finger exercises").

kleines Übungsstück als Fingerübung

translates to something like

short piece of music to exercise the fingers

and not

small/easy piece of an exercise (translation: me)

as you thought. "Übungsstück" is a compound word built from Übung/exercise and Stück/piece of music. The latter is a common abbrevation of Musikstück, it's very clear that Stück doesn't refer to a piece of anything else but music.

Now of course someone might use that figuratively in some non-music context, but that's not the meaning that is listended in the Duden and it sounds kind of awkward - probably exactly as awkward as it sounds to just use the equivalent English finger exercise.

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    I upvoted for the clarification of the Duden entry which is as you say; that is an important correction. I disagree, however, with your impression that a figurative use is "awkward" -- quite the opposite, I find it idiomatic and expressive. But one of the first things I learned here is that there is a wide variety in the language backgrounds people come from and things I found obvious or common were clearly not so for others. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Sep 29 '20 at 7:49
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    A query in the "Deutsches Referenzkorpus" returns thousands of attestations of Fingerübung in the database. Skimming a random sample of 50 attestations, I found ~40 of them to be used in a clearly figurative sense that has nothing to do with musical practise. It's difficult to reconcile these findings with the premise of your answer that Fingerübung in non-music contexts is awkward even in German. – Schmuddi Sep 29 '20 at 14:28
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    Native German here: The musical meaning is rare, the figurative is common. – Martin Schröder Sep 30 '20 at 19:45
  • Even if Duden doesn't have it, Wiktionary gives the figurative (übertragen) meaning of Fingerübung as well as the musical meaning. – Peter Shor Oct 1 '20 at 12:40
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The expression I would use is no brainer:

If you describe a question or decision as a no-brainer, you mean that it is a very easy one to answer or make.
[informal]

For example, in the book 5 Steps to a 5 AP Microeconomics and Macroeconomics:

Question number one looks like a no-brainer.

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After reading a comment left by the author on a prospective answer, I believe the closest term would be "low-hanging fruit". It is a problem which is generally termed to be trivial, but still has reward for completing it, and it will generally be completed first as a result. A student on an exam would generally seek out the easier problems on an exam (the low-hanging fruit) first, and then would be likely to attempt more difficult problems after completing those.

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The obvious English expression, used in relation to some sublime piano pieces written by a certain German composer, is actually given in the Duden translation cited in the posters’s question:

Easy pieces

Although it is general used for practice exercises in a musical context (see e.g. here, but a search on Amazon should convince) the expression has been extended as an idiom, as evidenced by its use in the title of the movie “Five Easy Pieces” which some older list members may remember.

N.B.
‘Easy Pieces’ in this context does have a literal German equivalent in “leichte Stücke” (as pointed out by @PeterShor). It is interesting that the German title of the film mentioned does not employ this: “Ein Mann sucht sich selbst” (literally, but inelegantly, “A man seeks himself”).

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  • The equivalent of "Easy Pieces" in German seems to be "leichte Stücke", as in Paul Hindeminth's "Drei leichte Stücke" (translated as "Three Easy Pieces"). – Peter Shor Oct 1 '20 at 15:49
  • @PeterShor — Thanks for that info. Searching for “leichte Stücke brings up some other examples. I’ll edit my answer. – David Oct 1 '20 at 16:17
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The most common word for this in English is "Trivial". As in "I finished the trivial questions first."

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The purpose of Fingerübung might be to learn or to warm-up, either of which builds or refreshes muscle memory. So Depending on what you are trying to say, and especially if you want to retain the idiomatic tone, you might consider using some form of "muscle memory". The concept of warming up or building muscle memory was the first thing to come to my mind when I read your question.

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You might have a look at the term "Kata", which is martial arts exercises which you repeat over and over to strengthen muscle memory. Programmers use it as well to repeat a known problem solution in a new language (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kata_(programming))

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The German term might possibly arise from a piano lesson book I used when I was perhaps 12, titled, "Übungen um den Fingern voneinander unabhängig zu machen." That's "Exercises for the fingers from each other independent to make." Parts of it were easy. Other parts not so much, as in this example, "With the right hand hold down C, D, E, and G, and strike F with the ring finger repeatedly." Or similarly, "Hold down C, D, and E, and with the ring and little fingers trill F and G."

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A fresh one the last few years in English is easy-peasy.

(Interestingly, it's a fairly old formulation (perhaps from the 1940s?) but it's become a fad lately.)

Here's a kind of taxonomy ...

easiest
 child's play        
 no-brainer        
 easy-peasy        
 warm-up
hardest


more supercilious, the task is a "joke", being critical of the proponent,
suitable for condescension
 no-brainer        
 child's play           
 warm-up  
 easy-peasy  
less supercilious, task is worthy but easier than other approaches,
not used in condescension


less current in teen/everyday language, quaint     
 child's play    
 warm-up  
 no-brainer        
 easy-peasy  
more current in teen/everyday language, popular

A note on (scholastic) "exercise"...

In fact, the OP has (deliberately or not) emphasized that the SWR is an easy-peasy academic exercise, for example a math problem. As opposed to just an easy-peasy "anything".

Two thoughts,

(1) I'm not entirely sure that it is correct that in German the term is "only" used or even "leans towards" application to textbook problems.

{It could be the OP is just wrong (!) or just that the issue was, uh, lost in translation.}

(2) If the OP literally wants an English SWR meaning literally in relation to textbook, scholastic, academic drill problems - the answer is simply that there is absolutely no such term.

(To inject a note of humour, in the English-speaking realm, we don't do academic stuff. It would be like a Japanese asking for a translation of one of their words like "total focus on success!" (nope) or indeed a German asking for a word for "management and unions working together harmoniously!". We don't have that stuff :O )

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