Pili Rodríguez Deus/ February 1, 2020/ intercultural communication, marketing translation

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Lulu’s brown butter madeleines with buckwheat and chocolate chips

 #ThatTranslatorCanCook 3

gluten free French madeleines | PiliRodriguezDeus.com

"Las magdalenas de Lulu, con alforfón, beurre noisette y pepitas de chocolate" 

When I like a cookbook, I like to make as many recipes as possible rather than jump around like a butterfly. I'm the same visiting a new city or learning a language: I like to wander discovering all the little corners, speak like a native, not merely get by. Variety is definitely the spice of life, yet, I like to feel like I master things. Getting to know that place, language or cuisine is like getting to know a good friend. But, having made over a third of the recipes in La Tartine Gourmande, I have started to get to know its sequel, My French Family Table (MFFT), and that’s where this recipe comes from. Both books offer mainly but not exclusively vegetarian, gluten free recipes.

What’s in a name?

According to the Larousse Gastronomique, a madeleine is:

A small, individual, French sponge cake shaped like a rounded shell, made with sugar, flour, melted butter and eggs, flavoured with lemon or orange-flower water. The mixture is cooked in ribbed oval moulds which give the cakes their shell-like appearance.


Madeleines have descendants in Spain, but these tend to be round, not that sculpted scalloped shape. Amongst the many versions regarding the origin of French madeleines, one goes that a certain duke visiting a castle was all smitten with a cake made by a peasant called Madeleine.

My question today is, could we simply translate madeleines as magdalenas? Could we go as far as translating cupcakes and muffins as magdalenas? After all, they're in the same family. The problem is that they are not identical twins. Should we then borrow foreign terms as a rule of thumb to avoid misnomers? There is no short answer, but the target audience's expectations and the author and publication’s marketing strategy will be deciding factors.

In my proposed title above, I use magdalenas, because you can only use so many foreign terms together or the reader might be alienated, and there are a fair amount of foreign food terms in Peltre's books. Also, in My French Family Table, given its nature, all recipe titles have subtitles in French so that readers can see the original name. I could have used madeleines, but I decided to introduce the term beurre noisette and explain it in the instructions. A foreign term is enough.

However, as discussed by cf. Epstein (2009) or Paradowski (2017, 2018), one of the problems with food terminology is that the very same word can be used to designate different products in different countries. Such is the case of British and American chips and, as we will see, an English madeleine, a French madeleine and a Spanish magdalena are from different planets.

Another problem is that food terminology evolves. The same as new ones are invented for new creations (say duffin), existing terms change connotations. That's why, for some Spaniards, the term magdalena evokes a different image and feelings to American cupcakes (see Molina, 2012). Fancy equating a plain old-fashioned magdalena with the tarted up cupcake! Although they would appear to be falling out of favour (Ha llegado el fin de la era de los cupcakes, El Pais). Who dares call a muffin magdalena when it's much bigger, crumblier, juicier and trendier?

We have two biggies: marketing and equivalence. Can we ever equate two items that aren’t strictly the same? If the texture, shape, size and presentation are different, that’s a hell of a difference even when the basic ingredients are similar, which leads us to the fact that you will constantly have to be filling cultural gaps in food translation.

Have you ever eaten an English madeleine like these ones from BBC Good Food? I don't think I have, but patisseries  are few and far between where I live. An English madeleine is:

...a small, individual, English sponge cake which is baked in a dariole mould, coated with jam and desiccated coconut and topped with candied cherry and angelica. (Larousse Gastronomique)


Translating madeleine as madalena (or English madeleine as madeleine) might leave readers or customers feeling rather cheated if they don't have a picture, which is not the case with my recipe. But it also depends on the aim of your paragraph or sentence: a recipe title is not quite the same as an explanation in a paragraph.

The Three Big Sisters: creative, technical and food translation

Creative translation

The recipe name was a good example of technical and marketing translation at once. Apart from that, each cookbook author will have a personal style, and I like Peltre's storytelling, “She likes to keep her nose pressed up against the oven in the hope of seeing their little bump form”.

That little bump will have been named somewhere. The translator could use that existing term, but here it's all about storytelling and that bump needs to sound magic, which is why the option I found in El Comidista, copete, would not work.

Descriptions are essential for marketing and for comprehension purposes. The marketing type can be overused and the technical type can be underused. They can be crucial to visualising texture or consistency and selling the recipe, and they tend to be tricky to translate. Take "oozing melted chocolate"; you'll need an appetising solution, not the oozing wound type.

Technical translation

An interesting technical term in this recipe is brown butter and the corresponding verb to brown. Browning vegetables, meat and butter have slightly different purposes, and they have different translations. In this article about beurre noisette by Gastronomyaycia (in Spanish), you'll find examples of something I discussed in my post about membrillo: how perceptions vary cross-culturally. To some, brown butter smells like hazelnuts; to others, like walnuts, because that is more familiar to them. The educated technical term is beurre noisette:

To make noisette butter, gently heat some butter in a frying pan until it is golden and gives off a nutty smell. (Larousse Gastronomique)

In my recipe, “Cook over medium heat until slightly golden and with a nutty aroma”. Peltre cleverly uses the more colloquial term, because her reader is a home cook, not a chef’s apprentice. As with other types of translation, register is something a food translator needs to master: translating for beginner cooks, for foodies and for a cookery course are different kettles of fish. As a lifelong cook's apprentice, I was unsure how long the butter would take to brown. The author describes the colour and the smell to look for and, judging by the heavenly perfume coming out of the oven, her description was perfect.

What's in a magdalena?

What are the differences among magdalenas, muffins and cupcakes? Let's see a few.

magdalenas caseras | Blog De Rechupete

In terms of texture, magdalenas are dry, spongy and need an airy batter to reach those peaks.

Muffins, on the other hand, are moist, crumbly and dense. They tend to come filled with fruit jam or studded with chocolate chunks or fruit as these cherry muffins from BBC Food. And they have a mushroomy top, because the batter, barely worked, does not rise much, which is why in English a mushroom top colloquially means an bulging belly.

Last but not least, we have the elegant cupcake, made of sponge cake butter like these cupcakes from BBC Food. Although, perhaps the prettiest are English madeleines. Para gustos hay colores, as we Spaniards say.


This was uneventful apart from the fact that the author does not provide fan oven temperatures, although she helpfully gives Fahrenheit and Centigrade equivalences.  I started them at 200C instead of 215, but it seems I should have followed the instructions as I had to put them back in. Then, 5 minutes was a little too long. Ovens... The upside was that they kept much better and I enjoyed them slowly for many days.

© Pili Rodríguez Deus | All rights reserved.

Academic references

Epstein, B. J. (2009). What’s cooking: Translating Food. Translation Journal, 13(3). Retrieved from http://translationjournal.net/journal/49cooking.htm

Molina, R. (2012, September 28). ¿Por qué lo llaman “cookie” cuando quieren decir galleta? El País. Retrieved from https://smoda.elpais.com/placeres/por-que-lo-llaman-cookie-cuando-quieren-decir-galleta/

Paradowski, M. B. (2018). What’s cooking in English culinary texts? Insights from genre corpora for cookbook and menu writers and translators. The Translator, 24(1), 50-69. https://doi.org/10.1080/13556509.2016.1271735

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