Idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless

English translation: exercise in futility

04:50 Oct 12, 2009
English language (monolingual) [Non-PRO]
Art/Literary - General / Conversation / Greetings / Letters / Idioms
English term or phrase: Idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless
I am translating a Vietnamese idiom and am looking for an English equivalent. In Vietnamese, it can be literally translated as "eat home meals and fetch the ivory tusks", which actually means to do something unprofitable and needless. There is an ironic twist to this phrase because this type of activity is not encouraged. It definitely does not mean "carry coals to Newcastle.' The context refers to people in south Vietnam doing voluntary work in the 1940s to help people suffering from famine in northern Vietnam.
Trinh Do
Australia
Selected answer:exercise in futility
Explanation:
Not quite so poetic an idiom, but it is a "set phrase" and comes rather close to the original meaning, I think, without overextending.
Selected response from:

Kathryn Litherland
United States
Local time: 16:16
Grading comment
Thank you!
3 KudoZ points were awarded for this answer



SUMMARY OF ALL EXPLANATIONS PROVIDED
3 +4exercise in futility
Kathryn Litherland
3 +1running around like headless chickens
B D Finch
3to flog/flogging a dead horse
Armand C.
2 +1Eat up your food, think of the starving children in Africa ...
Shera Lyn Parpia
3chasing the wind
Mwananchi
2chasing one’s own tail
foghorn
2volunteer in spite of usefulness
José J. Martínez
2charity begins at home
cmwilliams (X)


Discussion entries: 5





  

Answers


3 mins   confidence: Answerer confidence 2/5Answerer confidence 2/5
idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless
volunteer in spite of usefulness


Explanation:
that is my volunteered answer...

José J. Martínez
Mexico
Local time: 13:16
Meets criteria
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish, Native in SpanishSpanish

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
neutral  NancyLynn: The Asker is looking for an idiom, a set expression
9 hrs

neutral  Armorel Young: what does "in spite of usefulness" mean?
14 hrs
Login to enter a peer comment (or grade)

3 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 3/5Answerer confidence 3/5
idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless
to flog/flogging a dead horse


Explanation:
Do something useless. (Also, reopen a closed topic, sometimes.)

There are lots of other expressions related to doing something useless: to build castles in the air, to square the circle, to go/send sm. on a wild goose chase, to nail pudding to a tree (an americanism, I think), fiddling while Rome burns...

There's also (to) boondoggle, somewhat newer and maybe appropriate too, as it means something along the lines of useless (or of little) value work done merely to look busy, or a wasteful project (initiated by the powers that be). But that's also an americanism AFAIK.

Armand C.
Italy
Local time: 22:16
Does not meet criteria
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in GermanGerman, Native in RomanianRomanian

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
neutral  Kathryn Litherland: I've always heard "flog a dead horse" in the context of repeating an argument/refusing to concede a debate that's been settled
2 hrs

neutral  NancyLynn: with Kathryn
6 hrs
Login to enter a peer comment (or grade)

3 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 2/5Answerer confidence 2/5
idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless
charity begins at home


Explanation:
This could possibly apply but not sure about the needless bit.

CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME -- "One's own family (or country, etc.) comes before any other responsibilities. The idea of the proverb can be found ...
www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/7/messages/839.html




cmwilliams (X)
United Kingdom
Local time: 21:16
Meets criteria
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 4
Login to enter a peer comment (or grade)

3 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 3/5Answerer confidence 3/5 peer agreement (net): +1
idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless
running around like headless chickens


Explanation:
This might do. It expresses the idea of futile effort, but not the "voluntary" bit. I'm not sure that there is an English expression that does both as volunteering tends to be encouraged.

B D Finch
France
Local time: 22:16
Meets criteria
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 192

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  foghorn
47 mins
  -> Thanks foghorn

neutral  Kathryn Litherland: Actually, the core of this idiom has to do with doing something chaoticly and frantically--that the result is futile is a secondary effect
2 hrs
Login to enter a peer comment (or grade)

4 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 3/5Answerer confidence 3/5
idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless
chasing the wind


Explanation:
Engaging in a futile exercise.

Mwananchi
Kenya
Local time: 23:16
Meets criteria
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish, Native in SwahiliSwahili
PRO pts in category: 12
Login to enter a peer comment (or grade)

6 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 2/5Answerer confidence 2/5 peer agreement (net): +1
idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless
Eat up your food, think of the starving children in Africa ...


Explanation:
Often parents will say this to their children when they want them to eat up everything on their plate. Of course it doesn't help the children anywhere else even if they do eat their food!
It's not an idiom but it is a very often used way of speaking to kids. I'm not sure how you can use it. but I think that's what you want

http://www.childrensglobalinitiative.org/lessons.php
http://realtravel.com/e-227042-kakamega_entry-“eat_your_dinn...
%E2%80%9D
http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080202233754AA...


Shera Lyn Parpia
Italy
Local time: 22:16
Meets criteria
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 36

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  chaman4723
13 mins
  -> thanks!
Login to enter a peer comment (or grade)

6 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 3/5Answerer confidence 3/5 peer agreement (net): +4
idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless
exercise in futility


Explanation:
Not quite so poetic an idiom, but it is a "set phrase" and comes rather close to the original meaning, I think, without overextending.

Kathryn Litherland
United States
Local time: 16:16
Meets criteria
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in EnglishEnglish
PRO pts in category: 4
Grading comment
Thank you!

Peer comments on this answer (and responses from the answerer)
agree  foghorn: definitely seems so.
1 hr

agree  Mwananchi: sounds interesting
1 hr

agree  NancyLynn
3 hrs

agree  Liam Hamilton
23 hrs
Login to enter a peer comment (or grade)

8 hrs   confidence: Answerer confidence 2/5Answerer confidence 2/5
idiom meaning to do something voluntary/unprofitable but needless
chasing one’s own tail


Explanation:
. . .seems futile enough.

foghorn
Meets criteria
Works in field
Native speaker of: Native in TurkishTurkish, Native in EnglishEnglish
Login to enter a peer comment (or grade)



Login or register (free and only takes a few minutes) to participate in this question.

You will also have access to many other tools and opportunities designed for those who have language-related jobs (or are passionate about them). Participation is free and the site has a strict confidentiality policy.

KudoZ™ translation help

The KudoZ network provides a framework for translators and others to assist each other with translations or explanations of terms and short phrases.


See also:

Your current localization setting

English

Select a language

Term search
  • All of ProZ.com
  • Term search
  • Jobs
  • Forums
  • Multiple search