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There is a great phrase in Dutch that translates roughly as "Mopping the floor while the tap is running".

I.e. working to fix a problem but having no impact and not even able to keep up.

Is there an English equivalent that conveys the same meaning?

I've found "Mopping while the tub overflows", but I've only found a single usage of that phrase. Is there a better one?

EDIT:

"Coals to Newcastle" et. al. suggest something that is pointless or even silly. While I agree there's some overlap, I feel the phrase "dweilen met de kraan open", suggests you are desperately trying to catch up with a problem.

Maybe something more along the lines of addressing the symptoms, not the cause?

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8 Answers 8

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I would suggest 'bailing out a sinking ship'.

He knew the time was right to cut one's losses, when it was better to find a new boat than to keep bailing out a sinking ship. And with Rydell, the Sherwood boys, and that reporter running free, that ship wasn't just sinking, it was about to be torpedoed into smithereens.

From The Sign, by Raymond Khoury

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  • 1
    Have you references that this is an idiom? It doesn't necessarily refer to a hopeless situation, in my experience. 'Bailing out a sinking ship with a paper cup' has been used. Mar 15, 2018 at 10:55
  • @EdwinAshworth I think this might come closest so far to the mental image I have for the Dutch phrase. Mar 15, 2018 at 11:05
  • @EdwinAshworth Unfortunately I could not find any references to this being an 'official' idiom, but posted it anyway as it was the first thing that came to mind. Mar 15, 2018 at 11:10
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    In the absence of a definition, linking to some published examples of the phrase / saying would be helpful. // Other common containers associated with this saying are thimbles and teaspoons.
    – Lawrence
    Mar 15, 2018 at 14:49
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    @Lawrence: Aye. Done. Mar 15, 2018 at 14:56
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This idiom from the Farlex Dictionary fits the bill.

Play whack-a-mole

Literally, to play an arcade game in which the player uses a small rubber mallet to hit robotic toy moles that pop up randomly in holes laid out across the surface of the machine.

By extension, to cope with a situation in which problems continue to arise faster than one is able to solve or cope with them, resulting in piecemeal, incomplete, or temporary results.

Every time we think we have the software debugged, more problems show up. We've just been playing whack-a-mole from day one!

play whack-a-mole

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One expression for a task that is never-ending is like painting the Forth Bridge.

In the early days of the Forth Rail Bridge, the tale was that by the time the workers had finished painting the bridge, the older paint had started to deteriorate to such an extent that they had to start all over again.

This doesn’t quite convey the “running tap” concept of the Dutch expression, because there’s no “tap” that could be switched off, unless you count advances in paint technology.

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We do have "Pushing water uphill". No matter how much you push, it comes back down past you.

A similar answer has been given in another ELU question.

It also keeps your watery reference.

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  • OMY's answer there seems the most appropriate if rather rude. Mar 15, 2018 at 11:24
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In an ineffective solution that's a waste of effort and resources:

  • to put a plaster on a wooden leg

..which is similar to the French idiom:

Alternatively, you could try to translate it directly since it's a metaphor which can easily be pictured:

"There is so much X causing Y. It is like mopping the floor with the faucet open. With current measures there simply comes no end to it."

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To focus on your "addressing the symptoms, not the cause", I would go with:

Link to this idiom in Cambridge Dictionary

Shifting / rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

Meaning: "used for saying that someone is wasting time dealing with things that are not important, and is ignoring a much more serious problem"

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  • Already given at the duplicate. Mar 15, 2018 at 10:54
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I would use:

It's a never ending story

It more explains the end result rather the entire story, but I still think it fits well.

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    This is extremely generic and doesn't even convey that there is a problem, much less that someone is trying ineffectually to solve it.
    – Laurel
    Nov 15, 2023 at 23:31
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Law Of Holes: When you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_holes

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  • This idiom applies only to self-destructive behavior, which the original idiom doesn't seem to be about.
    – Laurel
    Nov 15, 2023 at 23:30

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