I'm native Russian and when we need to talk about some tough choice between two alternatives, we use a metaphor of a traditional scale. Namely, it's bowls.

  • Так вышло, что на одной чаше весов был чемпионат мира, а на другой — дружба.

  • In English: It so happened that the World Championship was on one side of the scales, and friendship was on the other.

Idioms are generally very regional-specific, and so I think it won't be a good idea to translate it to English literally. What will be a good alternative for it?

I know about "on the one hand ..., on the other one ...", but it's not quite the same.

  • 1
    Your translation is good. Without introduction, readers will understand the balancing scales. Jul 30, 2020 at 19:57
  • Are they good alternatives, or bad ones? From the context I guess the former. Jul 30, 2020 at 20:56
  • “Tipping the scales” suggests weighing two things. Blind justice, in American jurisprudence, holds a scale.
    – Xanne
    Jul 30, 2020 at 21:03

2 Answers 2


On the horns of a dilemma

This emphasizes the difficulty of a choice. To my mind it suggests that the decision will have negative consequences in one, but not both directions. This point of view may seem at first sight difficult to reconcile with the common dictionary definition:

"to choose between two things, both of which are unpleasant or difficult"

However, applied to the example from the poster the choice between the two unpleasant things is a choice between “not going to the World Championships” and “losing a friendship”. In each case the choice results in a partial positive outcome — “going to the World Championships” or “maintaining a friendship”.

More negative in both directions (to my mind) might be the rather overused:

Between a rock and a hard place

Neither seem to me quite as negative as the “lose-lose” of @RichardKayser, although I think his “no-win” is possible.

Metaphoric use of ‘balance’ in English

There are several metaphors using balances or scales in English, but those that come to mind relate solely to the outcome (the heavier or favoured balance pan) when the equilibrium is disturbed, rather than nature of the possible outcomes (the contents of the balance pans). Thus, we have:

Finely balanced
In the balance

…relating to the uncertainty of the outcome, and:

Tip the balance in favour of…
On balance

…relating to the actual outcome. Although, somewhat counter-intuitively, the balance itself (as in financial usage) has come to mean the difference between the weights in the two pans.


How about lose-lose situation? From Cambridge:

lose-lose: A lose-lose situation or result is one that is bad for everyone who is involved: He said that going ahead with the strike would be a lose-lose situation for all concerned.

One could also call this a no-win situation, a situation that has no ideal solution.

  • I think your "no-win" is a better answer than "lose-lose", because in the example "The World Championship" is not a "lose" and the "no-win" could be taken to apply to the overall outcome which is more win-lose or lose-win (neither of which, of course, are usage).
    – David
    Jul 31, 2020 at 9:27
  • @David Good point. I agree. Jul 31, 2020 at 12:13

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