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"Непаханое поле" - a [big] amount of undone work.

Updated example: a kid is leisurely watching TV while there a lot of undone homework (which he hasn't even started).

Note: the example below is probably misleading. The thing that something is overlooked, the lack of information is an artifact of the example, not inherent to "untilled field" Russian expression.

For example, a person does some finalizing, "polishing" bits of a work (or just lazying about) not realizing that actually the scope is bigger and he should be doing the intensive, more real thing instead.

Imagine someone removing snow from some ground who keeps cleaning up little bits of remaining snow, not knowing that he has missed a chunk of ground with "untilled" snow.

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I think the example is misleading. "Здесь работы непаханое поле" means that: 1. work was barely started. 2. it's a lot of work to do. It doesn't mean you didn't know the scope before. – enkryptor Mar 22 at 16:16
    
Yes, the answerers are totally misguided – Askar Kalykov Mar 22 at 20:26
    
@enkryptor, Updated the question to be less misleading. Shall old example (centered around the lack of information about something) be extracted (including the relevant answers) into a separate question? – Vi0 Mar 22 at 21:34
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As a native Russian I'd say that this idiom has different meanings and they don't quite match what's discussed. a) A lot of work ahead, like when you are to build a house and all you have is a patch of land. b) A big opportunity, e.g. a new and empty market. c) A lack of required foundation or a state of wilderness and disarray that prevents advanced development, e,g. trying to sell expensive wines to people with uncultivated tastes; doable, but an untilled field. – Mikhail Edoshin Mar 23 at 14:23
1  
There is also "конь не валялся" which means about the same. – Lazin Mar 24 at 9:46

10 Answers 10

up vote 19 down vote accepted

The idiom a long row to hoe fits pretty well (given the clarification), and it also fits with the original's agricultural theme. Usage:

That's a long row to hoe.

or

He has a long row to hoe.

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But's that's still hoeable ;) – Mr. Derpinthoughton Mar 23 at 13:09
    
Thanks. This one feels like perfect match. Can there, for example, be a phrase like "Stop playing this stupid video game! You have an entire long row of homework to hoe."? (or "a long row to hoe in your school assignments" or something like that) – Vi0 Mar 23 at 23:30
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@Vi0 No, not really. At best, such a phrase would sound amusingly rustic, and at worst, it would just be confusing. Simply "You have work to do", although not metaphorical, sounds more natural to me. – trentcl Mar 24 at 2:35
    
You could say something like "You'll have a long row to hoe if you don't start your homework now!" – Hefewe1zen Mar 24 at 22:32
    
@Hefewe1zen, you might say that, but to me it implies that failing to start homework immediately would create a need to perform a lot of additional work that otherwise would be unnecessary. Indeed that's possible. But if by that you mean to promise general negative consequences (scolding, poor grades, etc.) then no. If there is a lot of homework to do, then the student already has a long row to hoe. – PellMel Mar 24 at 22:46

Russian idiom непаханое поле can have slightly different meanings, depending on a on a context, but in general means that there is many work that can/need to be done.

As a russian speaking person I feel that best match would be:

have a lot/enough on your plate

Usage:

Don't you have enough on your plate?

Which is equivalent to russian:

У тебя же дел непаханое поле?

In a context that you have too much work to do already/barely started to do that you already have.

It can also be combined with:

Business before pleasure

Which is equivalent to russian Делу время - потехе час.

For example:

Business before pleasure, you have a lot on your plate.

Делу время - потехе час, у тебя работы непаханное поле.

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There is a well known expression: Rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Focussing on small irrelevant details when something much larger is going on all around.
It does carry a connotation of impending disaster if the larger event is not addressed, that may not be what you are after.

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12  
I always felt this saying was more about doing pointless activity in the face of inevitable catastrophe. There was nothing that could have been done to save the Titanic. – ColleenV Mar 22 at 17:39
    
The question is although just about a big amount of undone work. The "catastrophe" may be just a reprimand from superiors for not working. – Vi0 Mar 22 at 21:26
    
@ColleenV: Even after it's clear that the ship itself will be lost, there's still a lot of labor required to maximize the survival rate. It would have been shameful for a Titanic crew member to waste time fiddling with the deck chairs when he could help launch lifeboats, or hand out life jackets, or direct passengers to the boat deck. – Dan Mar 23 at 0:31
    
Unless the deck chairs impede an evacuation route, in which case it would be a good idea to move them out of the way. – Dan Mar 23 at 0:34
    
@Dan One thing I've learned about idioms as I've travelled is that everyone has a different picture in their mind when they hear them, even if the idiom hasn't been mangled music-soothes-the-savage-beast style. I'm not saying my interpretation is the only correct one, and I didn't DV because I think the expression is worth mentioning, but my understanding isn't wrong because you can imagine a situation where rearranging deck chairs isn't pointless. Idioms aren't even close to being that literal. – ColleenV Mar 23 at 1:13

Perhaps "can't see the forest for the trees." Which means you're not seeing the bigger picture.

Usage:

Alex argues about petty cash but overlooks the budget--he can't see the forest for the trees.

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majoring on the minors

Others spend so much time and energy on nonessential things that they lose the fundamental items of value. Such keep the peelings and throw away the banana or potato or apple; or, to use another figure of speech, they keep the shells and throw the pearls back.

In brief, such persons are majoring on minors. Everyone majors in something. Some interest or project or activity becomes one's primary concern. It is his major even though it may be minor. (emphasis is mine.)

SermonIndex

Confident people do not waste time majoring on the minors or try to win company popularity contests.

The Quality Paradigm

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I've always heard this as "majoring in minors". Same idea, just slightly different syntax. – Developer63 Mar 23 at 18:32

You may use: when up to one's neck in alligators, it's easy to forget that the mission is to drain the swamp

business adage The full expression is some variation of: "When you are up to your neck in alligators, it's easy to forget that the goal was to drain the swamp." It is easy to be so overcome or preoccupied by various tangential worries, problems, or tasks that one loses sight of the ultimate goal or objective.

[Farlex Dictionary of Idioms via The Free Dictionary]

Usage:

Look at that guy cleaning up negligible amount of snow when there is truck load of snow to be cleared up on the other side. I guess, when up to one's neck in alligators, it's easy to forget that the mission is to drain the swamp!

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Similar to your idiom, a greenfield project is one that starts from nothing.

In many disciplines a greenfield project is one that lacks constraints imposed by prior work. The analogy is to that of construction on greenfield land where there is no need to work within the constraints of existing buildings or infrastructure.

The emphasis seems to be more that there is no connection to existing work, than that there is a great amount of work to be done. But the latter would usually be implicit.

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Green Field also came to mind for me on this. It feels like It only captures part of the Russian sense of this expression. It captures the optimistic "opportunity" part, but with potentially a lot of work ahead, unbounded by "constraints" of existing work and infrastructure, and yet also not having the "foundation' of existing work and infrastructure to build on top of. – Developer63 Mar 23 at 18:24

"Too busy chasing the hogs to build a hog house"

This is in a similar spirit as the alligators and swamp answer, and the "majoring in minors" answer.

My father liked to use this expression, and I believe he picked it up growing up in rural Texas and Nevada in the 1940's.

It is perhaps not a perfect match with all senses of the Russian term, but it does convey that there is a larger, long-term-important project that is being neglected while focusing on smaller, urgent, in-your-face types of projects.

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This one isn't well-known outside of the software industry, but I think it fits well with what you're looking for: bike-shedding

It is also known as Parkinson's Law of Triviality

"The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved."

This refers to people's tendency to focus on small details rather than the larger bits of a project since the smaller details are easier to understand and of less consequence, meaning more people are prepared to discuss them at length.

Usage: "The due date loomed on their project, but the team spent most of the afternoon bike-shedding about minor issues instead of making real progress."

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Though not really a idiom, but the following extract (especially the final line in this snippet) from A Little Learning by Alexander Pope seems to apply well.

So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky ;
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last ;
But those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthened way ;
The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hill peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise !

So perhaps you could say:
He thought he'd made progress removing snow until he realized, in the words of Alexander Pope, Hill peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise !

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