The barrel of the Danaids

I was listening to my daily On refait le monde podcast when one of the journalists referred to the barrel of the Danaids. This is what he said:

Une taxe, c’est quelque chose qu’on nous prend et qu’on nous rend pas, qui tombe dans le tonneau des Danaïdes.

A tax is something that is taken from us and that we don’t get back: it falls in the barrel of the Danaids.

There seems to be different versions of the myth of the Danaids, but this is a summary of what I found in my copy of “La mythologie”, by Edith Hamilton. Danaus had 50 daughters (the Danaids) and happened to have a twin brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons and thought a mass-wedding between cousins would be a good idea, but Danaus and his daughters refused. They had to accept in the end, but Danaus ordered the Danaids to kill their husbands, which they did (all apart from one). As punishment, the Danaids were condemned to fill a leaky barrel for all eternity.
So in this context, the journalist was comparing tax revenue to a leaky barrel. How would you translate it into English? A “bottomless pit” maybe? This biblical reference to the abyss, where evil spirits are kept prisoners, mirrors the mythological reference, but has moral connotations which don’t quite work. Any other ideas?

By |2009-09-08T19:01:36+00:00September 8th, 2009|Idioms|6 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Audrey September 8, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    It is funny to see that my Collins English dictionary mentions “a jar with a hole in the bottom” whereas the Brewer’s dictionary of Phrase & Fable mentions that they were punished “by having to draw water everlastingly in sieves from a deep well”.
    But in both cases, they spell it “Danaides”.
    As for “bottomless pit”, I associate it more with “puits sans fond” which is not always used negatively.
    But, I must say, that so far I cannot think of anything else.
    Anyway, thanks for the Waterhouse’s painting; I love it!

  2. jean-paul September 9, 2009 at 5:56 am

    c’est le tonneau des Danaïdes
    a. [travail interminable] it’s an endless task
    b. [gouffre financier] it’s a bottomless pit

  3. Katherine September 11, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    What are the moral connotations you are thinking of?
    I think ‘bottomless pit’ would be the best choice to compare to a leaky barrel.
    But depending on the context, somewhere things are taken never to return could be a ‘black hole’.

  4. céline September 12, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Black hole. That’s the one I was thinking about but couldn’t quite dig out of my brain, thanks a lot.
    I think there are similar moral connotations to both the Abyss and the barrel of the Danaids, which both imply a punishment or expiation, but actually, they disappear when they’re used in everyday discourse, like in the example I give.

  5. Diana September 27, 2009 at 9:05 am

    This is similar to Sisyphus’ endless labour. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king punished in Tartarus by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity. The word sisyphean means, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “endless and unavailing, as labor or a task.”
    So I think your “tonneau des Danaides” could also be translated by “sisyphean work”.

  6. Judy February 27, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Just found your site and love it!
    Don’t know if it’s too late to respond to this entry, but I wanted to comment on “leaky barrel” vs “bottomless pit.”
    To me, “leaky barrel” gives the feeling that whatever you put in it seeps away or escapes from control, while whatever is put in a “bottomless pit” is still in there somewhere. Also, theoretically you could fill a leaky barrel if you had enough water and did it fast enough, but a bottomless pit has infinite capacity.

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