The Unlovely Gaze Where Every Eye Doth Dwell

What then is difficult, even impossible, to translate into English? Sometimes it is indeed a single word, though often not the “hard” or “rare” (read technical) lexemes that the imagination might immediately conjure up; sometimes it is how the word or phrase functions brilliantly with its peers, which involves something of le mot juste that Flaubert so esteemed (easily enough translated as “the right word,” by the way); and sometimes it is how one language allows words to do their work together, what people commonly think of when they think of the word grammar, and what is more properly called syntax (from the Greek suntaxis, suntassein, to arrange together). First, the single word.

The term regard in French is a good example. In English the term can be translated as gaze, look or glance, and the French word is of course the origin of the English “regard,” which made its first appearance in the language far back in 1380, according to the second edition of the OED. On the face of it, regard is indeed quite easy to translate into English. In art criticism, art history and cultural criticism in general, fields where I often find myself working, regard has proven especially popular. I haven’t got access to the necessary resources to do proper linguistic research but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the use of the word in French began to shoot up in the late 1960s or 1970s, at least in academic publications, art criticism and so on (by way of a benchmark, Foucault’s Discipline and Punish was originally published in 1975 in French; the first American edition dates from 1977). The same would hold for “gaze,” the usual translation for regard in this sense. It would be far easier, moreover, to follow gaze’s soaring fortunes since the word was probably less commonly employed in English in comparison to regard and its frequency in French. It is to this particular use, or overuse, that we owe the existence of such terms as the male gaze, the spectator’s gaze, the extra-diegetic gaze (the knowing wink at the audience), even—inevitably, come to think of it—“gaze in the military,” the title of both a 30 January 2007 news item in the New York Post and a few postings that are still floating around the English blogosphere.

The difficulty with translating regard springs from the term’s relative commonness in French. The regard du spectateur, for example, comes readily off the pen; indeed, a French critic who has no patience for the arch arcana of a Lacan or a Derrida could still write the expression without blushing or feeling like a hypocrite. Not so with “the spectator’s gaze.” That is one common rendering of the French locution and it still stands out a bit in English. Place it in a translated text and you tip off some, risk turning off others. Its presence would probably signal, or further confirm, that the piece in question is in a certain vein of criticism (the very heavy going kind) and not to everyone’s taste. As a translator, I naturally owe allegiance to the original, but I do have leeway. For a treatise that offers readers few treats (sometimes I find myself pleading to a heartless unyielding computer screen for even half-baked ones), I might indeed use “the spectator’s gaze”; the author, I would sigh, has made his or her choice. For a piece of criticism that is looking to reach readers, or at least hasn’t forgotten them altogether, I would probably use “the viewer’s gaze” instead, the term being much less remarkable—it wouldn’t really call attention to itself the way “the spectator’s gaze” does.

But things grow complicated for the English translator when a writer uses regard as a stand-alone concept, analyzing, for example, le regard and its function in a work of art or literature. Strict conformity to linguistic logic would impose “the gaze” (regard du spectator = the spectator’s/viewer’s gaze; le regard = the gaze), and certainly in a piece of criticism done in the not-to-be-trifled-with vein, the reader would encounter “the gaze” quite a lot, not always a pleasant prospect. In this case the English translator can prepare the terrain by using, for example, “the viewer’s eye” when the first regard occurs and thereafter shifting between “the eye,” “the viewer’s eye,” and “the eye of the viewer.” Eye is far commoner in English than gaze (the latter noun has just under one column devoted to it in the OED, the former a little over ten; and for its use with other terms—eye-bedewing, eye-beguiling, eyeliner, eye-wages, eye-waiter—there are another six columns of citations); it is that familiarity that renders the form here a little more palatable, a little lighter on the tongue.

By way of a parting tidbit, when doing just cursory research on “the gaze” and the pun “gaze in the military” popped into my head, I was one hundred percent certain of finding earlier uses on the web, and indeed Google immediately obliged with the references mentioned above. The internet and search engines are a humbling experience for anyone thinking about cracking wise with language and wordplay. Think you’ve come up with an original pun? Plug it into a search engine and prepare to see the high opinion you have of your wit cave ignominiously. When Rupert Murdoch was being grilled by the British parliamentary committee and you thought, ah yes, how appropriate, good old merde in the dock? Already done, back in 2007, though the “dock” in that instance had a different sense.

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