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flog a dead horse: to waste effort on something when there is no chance of succeeding.

He keeps trying to get it published but I think he's flogging a dead horse.

My feeling is that the literal translation does not make sense in French.

Il continue d'essayer de le faire publier mais je pense qu'il fouette un cheval mort.

So how can we convey the meaning in French idiomatically?

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    I think your definition of “to flog a dead horse” is deficient here. It’s not just that you have no chance of succeeding, it’s specifically that we know you have no chance of succeeding because what you are trying to do has been tried over and over (and over) without success.
    – KRyan
    Sep 23, 2022 at 0:24
  • 1
    Related: french.stackexchange.com/questions/23554
    – jlliagre
    Sep 23, 2022 at 6:35

6 Answers 6

9

In my region, Provence, you can absolutely say it in almost the same way:

« tuer un âne à coups de figues »

We say it all the time. In various contexts, including situations where "flogging a dead horse" would typically apply to. You can say « figues molles » if you want to be over the top. In Corsica too:

Strip from Astérix en Corse

Strip from «Astérix en Corse» by Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny

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  • Sure an ass is not a horse and a fig is not a whip...
    – PatrickT
    Sep 23, 2022 at 6:15
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    +1 For Uderzo and Goscinny.
    – Evargalo
    Sep 23, 2022 at 13:12
  • 2
    This expression is unknown in most parts of France by lack of figs ... Sep 24, 2022 at 7:59
  • 1
    You should put the reference in the answer itself, not just a comment.
    – Barmar
    Sep 24, 2022 at 12:43
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    @JeanMarieBecker, but not for lack of donkeys! ;-)
    – PatrickT
    Sep 25, 2022 at 2:20
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Indeed, it's an idiom and the literal translation is not used in French. What I would say in your example is "C'est peine perdue"

Il continue d'essayer de le faire publier mais je pense que c'est peine perdue

But it accounts for "there is no chance of succeeding", not the "to waste effort" part. I'm not sure there is an idiom for this specifically.

EDIT: Now that I think about it, etymologically "peine perdue" is quite literally "wasted effort". Peine here has the meaning of "travail, fatigue, effort qui coûte", and perdue means "lost, wasted".

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    En expression similaire, je vois aussi "c'est perdu d'avance" ou "c'est une cause perdue".
    – XouDo
    Sep 22, 2022 at 9:46
  • Agree with the answer. I think we could say "Il s'acharne inutilement", however it's not an idiom.
    – JFL
    Sep 23, 2022 at 9:44
  • @Xoudo: Your last case translates quite literally to a rather common English phrase a lost cause, which has some different connotations that flogging a dead horse.
    – Lee Mosher
    Sep 23, 2022 at 21:11
  • "To flog a dead horse" has two distinct meanings - one is to waste effort on a futile task. The other is to perform a task at a level beyond what is strictly necessary (e.g. "You've made your point - let's not flog a dead horse"). "Une peine perdue" fits the first definition but not the second. Sep 25, 2022 at 7:54
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On a very familiar tone, arguably vulgar, you may use the ̷p̷o̷e̷t̷i̷c̷ graphic phrase :

Autant pisser dans un violon

Litteraly :

Might as well piss in a violon

This expression is attested since the late 19th century. It is speculated to have evolved from "souffler dans un violon" ("blow in a violon"), which is as ineffective to produce music as rubbing a bow on a flute. It is quite common in colloquial French today.

In the famous song En Cloque, the singer Renaud used the variation:

C'est comme si je pissais dans un violoncelle

Litteraly :

That's like I was pissing in a cello

to stress how useless his efforts to help his pregnant girlfriend seemed to be.

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    L'expression complète « … dans un violon pour obtenir un son de flûte. » — Pour des projets : « Construire des châteaux en Espagne (ils seront propriétés de la couronne espagnole) ou « Tirer des plans sur la comète ».
    – Personne
    Sep 23, 2022 at 12:10
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Une possibilité est : un combat perdu d'avance
Une expression assez connue est :

L'amour est un combat perdu d'avance.

qui paraît dans le roman L'amour dure trois ans (et le film de même nom) par Frédéric Beigbeder.

Le mot combat est parfois substitué par un autre, plus approprié à la situation, par exemple: un debat perdu d'avance. On dit egalement un debat joué d'avance (un debat ou les arguments des parties sont previsibles.)

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Selon ma collègue, professeure en FLE, on peut utiliser l'expression

s'obstiner contre vents et marées

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    Je ne pense pas. Ça veut dire "très difficile", mais pas impossible. Sep 23, 2022 at 6:52
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For these questions I like to get ideas from linguee.com, a site that collects examples of actual translations. See https://www.linguee.com/english-french/search?query=flog+a+dead+horse

There you can find "s'acharner inutilement" or "perdre son temps". You also find "défoncer des portes ouvertes" which has a different meaning.

I would use

... mais je pense qu'il s'acharne inutilement.

... mais je pense qu'il perd son temps.

The first version expresses more desperate efforts to reach the wanted goal.

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    "défoncer des portes ouvertes" definitely means something else. Sep 23, 2022 at 9:49
  • 2
    Oh, and it should be "enfoncer des portes ouvertes". Sep 23, 2022 at 10:20
  • Right. One normally says "enfoncer" ... but it is not suitable anyway in this context.
    – Florian F
    Sep 23, 2022 at 10:56
  • « défoncer les portes ouvertes » m'a donné le fou rire de l'année, merci!
    – PatrickT
    Sep 23, 2022 at 17:20

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