It Ain’t Heavy, It’s My Job.

I love reading Gasan Guseinov; among other things, he’s a reliable source of Russian slang and allusions that are often new to me. This column on the verbal formulas we use to help us find our way through life ends with a truck driver contrasting Western Europe with Russia, saying that when he goes west he says to himself “Все продумано” (Everything has been thought through), so that if he doesn’t understand something he thinks about how things might be arranged for the greatest convenience of the user and he can usually figure it out (in this section I learned the colloquial use of the word азимут ‘azimuth’ from the phrase “и вот по этому азимуту идти” ‘and take my bearings from that’). But when he heads back east, he repeats to himself “Все схвачено”: “Значит, надо забыть об удобстве и тупо искать этого вот того, у которого все схвачено. Я так всегда делаю. И за двадцать лет ни разу не ошибся.” Literally the phrase means ‘Everything is seized/caught’: ‘That means you have to forget about convenience and dumbly/blindly look for the guy who has everything seized. I always do that, and in twenty years I’ve never once been mistaken.’ But that didn’t make much sense, so I went to my go-to guy for Russian allusions, Sashura, who explained to me that “Все схвачено” is a slang expression referring to someone who has all the right connections and reliable protection, who is “in control and using it for his own corrupt advantage, for profit.” He adds, “It’s very interesting that this expression, which I’d date back to the ’60s-’70s, that grew out of the shortages and controlled distribution of goods and services, has survived in our time of, supposedly, market economy.”

He finishes up with this intriguing question: “I loved his last phrase: Поэтому дома работа тяжелая, а там – трудная. How would you say it English? At home, work is a grind, over there, it’s toil?” I wondered the same thing; the first word for ‘hard, difficult,’ тяжелый, literally means ‘heavy,’ while the second, трудный, is derived from труд ‘labor, work,’ and we don’t have a comparable distinction in English. I tentatively suggested “here it’s a burden, there it’s a task,” but that’s not really satisfying, so I thought I’d throw it open for suggestions.


  1. Stefan Holm says

    If I am to believe my Русско-Шведский Словарь (Russian-Swedish Dictionary) трудний is ‘hard’, ‘heavy’ in the physical sense of the word while тяжелий can also be figurative in the sense ‘sad’ or ‘serious’. My dictionary gives (among others) the examples тяжелий восдух (‘heavy, suffocating air’) and тяжелий человек (‘intolerant, intransigent person’). So maybe he found work abroad just heavy but at home also boring.

  2. I think the main thrust of his comment is the contrast between fair and unfair.

  3. The “seized / hoarded” catchword is a part of a slightly longer, and rhymed, folk saying, “все схвачено, за все заплачено” (everything’s seized, everything’s paid for as in “controlled by connections, paid by bribes” in a broader meaning “life is unfair and you got no chances against the corrupt system and the big guys in control”). In the context of American life, we most often use this saying when dealing with health insurance delays, denials, obstructions, and insider job. But sometimes the Wall Street gets the rap too.

    As Sashura wrote, the sentence which precedes the “тяжелая – трудная” dichotomy makes it clear that the trucker compares hardships and dissatisfaction of being exposed to unfairness and corruption vs. the actual difficulty of work. Heavy as in “тяжело на душе / на сердце” ~~ “with a heavy heart” vs. laborious.

  4. des von bladet says

    I hesitate to Russian, but how about “Here it’s about labour; there it’s about graft.” (This only works in Englishes where “graft” can act as a pun, of course.)

  5. I think you’ve got it backwards (“here” is Russia), but in any case, I don’t get it: what’s the pun?

  6. des von bladet says
  7. Ah, I wasn’t familiar with 4. Takk!

  8. I had seen that sense 4 of “graft” before (probably in something written a long time ago), but then I had completely forgotten it. I think the joke really doesn’t work any more, because the negative meaning has completely taken over. I would hazard a guess that sense 6 descended directly from sense 4 through exactly that kind of joke, and sense 4 has become obsolete in my variety American English. (I don’t have OED access at home, so I can’t check my hypothesis for how the senses developed.)

  9. Maybe something like ‘Here it’s exhausting, there it’s enervating.’ might capture the physical vs. draining concept, and with a little alliteration thrown in for free.

  10. I doubt if sense 4 was ever current in AmE.

  11. Get one’s bearings” is not the best choice here, I think. “Идти по азимуту” means that you move in an orderly fashion, following specified route (“Все продумано“). Google “движение по азимутам” for examples. The phrase is sufficiently widely known because in Soviet times many kids were taught basic orienteering skills as part of extracurricular activities.

  12. Thanks, but to me “get one’s bearings” also implies moving in an orderly fashion (after you’ve gotten the bearings); how would you prefer to translate it?

  13. I’m not sure about the right idiom. Note, however, that “[движение по азимутам -] основной способ движения на местности, бедной ориентирами, особенно ночью и при ограниченной видимости.” That is, it’s used precisely when you can not get your bearings (truck driver: “если что-то мне не очень понятно“).

  14. Ah, good point. But I’m still not sure about how to translate it!

  15. it’s used precisely when you can not get your bearings
    In contemporary English usage the old use of bearings and headings (as in, see an object, figure out the azimuth leading to / from it) is pretty much lost. Bearings don’t have observable object behind them anymore – they are calculated from maps, from GPS waypoints, along the grand arcs beyond the horizon, etc. (I am familiar with map and orienteering aficionados lingo in both languages). But the idiomatic use of “getting your bearings” probably didn’t keep pace – it still means looking around and observing your surroundings. “Moving along an azimuth” is more like “flying by the radar”. In military parlance it’s “marching on a bearing” ratherthan “getting bearings”

  16. What MOCKBA said.

    I’m not very familiar with orienteering lingo myself. As a kid I used to spend summers at grandma’s place in the backwoods of Onega peninsula, so I never really understood hiking (туризм) fans. Forest is a place you go to to get food, not for recreation. 🙂

  17. “marching on a bearing” = “making a beeline for…” Is that the sense?

  18. I think ‘take bearings from that’ works fine here. Perhaps it can be put as ‘and that’s the compass I use’ or, in an explanatory manner, ‘and that’s the logic I follow.’

  19. On the тяжелая/трудная contrast, perhaps something like this would capture it: “At home, work’s a chore; over there, it’s hard work.”

    More colloquially, you might say “headache” or “big headache” instead of “chore”. I’m guessing that the distinction has to with the complications (moral, mental, and physical) of getting and keeping a, probably not strenuous, job with a decent salary vs. actually having to work hard at the job. In any case, I think turning the adjectives into nouns is probably the best way to bring out the distinction in English.

  20. So that is why work here is a chore – and over there it’s just work.

  21. Yeah, I’m starting to think “just work” is the best way to capture the just-work-iness of трудная.

  22. Dmitry Rubinstein says

    Not attempting at a serious translation (I don’t know how translate that трудный vs. тяжелый dichotomy), just something that popped into my mind: “here the work is a drag, there – it’s a drug”.

  23. Doesn’t exactly render the original, but I like it!

  24. Hard work vs. hard labor?

  25. A distinction without a difference.

  26. Arguably, the distinction in the original is also not that strong. While in that specific opposition “тяжёлая работа” has negative connotations, it’s not necessarily negative per se. It can be used in positive sense too. “Hard labor” is not necessarily negative per se either, but it’s used to denote penal labor (“sentenced to10 years of hard labor”), while “hard work” usually has positive connotations. Of course my perception of these phrases may be miscalibrated.

  27. I would imagine that идти по азимуту here is most idiomatically rendered as “rule of thumb”.

    As far as “work”, I still am not sure how to strike that one-two contrast. “In Europe my job gets me working, but here it just gets me down.”

  28. Remember that the truckers’ catchphrases are “mantras”, something to set his own internal mood right, rather than something to sketch the situation for the others. Like any mantras or mini-prayers, they don’t have to be self-explanatory or concisely translatable without footnotes.

    LH’s original translation of the “azimuth mantra” – “one can usually [approximately] figure it out [even without knowing the details]” was right on target. The parable meant that even though one doesn’t have a “map” and doesn’t yet see “the landmarks”, one may make a pretty good guess about the direction to follow, and after following blindly in that direction, whatever he sought will surely come in sight.

    I remembered one of my childhood’s little soothes for a very similar situation after uwe declared that the woods are for foraging, not for recreation 🙂 We used to pick huckleberries in the backwoods beyond river Mera (obviously named after an extinct Finno-Ugric group). On the way back, the trick was to guess the best “azimuth” to get as close to the river’s only ford as possible. So we’d yell around, “У кого есть чувство Меры?!!”. And after following blindly in the chosen direction, we’d reach the riverbank and see the landmarks and know how good was the guess.

  29. трудный vs. тяжелый:
    The words are very similar in meaning and, unless contrasted on purpose, interchangeable. For me (a point of view which can be quite different from the alleged trucker), трудный has a connotation of more than physical difficulty. Like difficult problem, something that is hard to do because it requires intellectual effort, or willpower, or craftsmanship, or ability to concentrate (like an athlete who has to perform at highest level at assigned time). тяжелый is more like it’s hard because you have to put a lot of effort, but in a relatively dumb way.

  30. I hasten to add that whatever translation you adopt, the difference must be subtle. The phrase is clearly in the spirit of Russian “что в лоб, что по лбу” verbal formula.

  31. Alon Lischinsky says

    @John Cowan:

    I doubt if sense 4 was ever current in AmE.

    Well, it’s in Jack London:

    The particular graft of the two mushers who had crossed the river was umbrella-mending; but what real graft lay behind their umbrella-mending, I was not told. (The Road, 1903)

    I can find a few other turn-of-the-century American uses, and in fact the earliest citation in the OED suggests a non-UK origin:

    ‘hard graft’, as they call labour in the colonies (J. Rochfort, Adventures Surveyor v. 47, 1853)

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