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#ThatTranslatorCanCook week 17: Madeleines

This week I chose to make madeleines, a quick and easy recipe. These small, shell-shaped sponge cakes with their characteristic bump are a French classic. They are light, buttery, and deliciously crispy on the edges. They’re best eaten freshly made. The bonne maman ones you can buy in the supermarket simply do not compare.

You do need a madeleine tin to make them in, which is a round tin with shell-shaped indents into which you spoon the batter. I’m fortunate that my French neighbour and friend has one I can borrow.


Cooking-specific terminology and false friends

I came across a new cooking term in my source recipetravailler. In a general sense, this verb means ‘to work’. In English, you also sometimes see ‘work’ used in recipes, as in ‘work the dough’ (here, it’s a synonym for ‘knead’) or ‘work the pastry into the corners of the tin’ (in this sense, it means ‘pull/push the dough until the edges’). Given this, when I first saw this French term, I thought it might have a similar meaning. However, travailler is defined by the journal des femmes site as:

Mélanger énergiquement une pâte ou un mélange

(Word-for-word: 'To energetically mix a dough or mixture').

I thought ‘beat’ might be an appropriate term for this. ‘Beat’ is defined in this glossary of cooking terms as:

'To mix rapidly in order to make a mixture smooth and light by incorporating as much air as possible.'

‘Beat’ therefore focuses on incorporating air into the mixture. Does travailler do the same, or is it a by-product of the action? French speakers, your insight would be welcome here! Otherwise, an alternative could simply be ‘mix energetically’.

Multiple adjectives and different source and target cultural knowledge

My source recipe included a lovely little introductory text:

Découvrez la recette de Madeleines, ces délicieuses bouchées moelleuses bombées adaptées à toutes les faims.

(Word-for-word translation: ‘Discover the recipe for Madeleines: these delicious soft bulging morsels suited to all appetites’)

A word-for-word translation simply does not work here. For a start, ‘bulging’ is a difficult word which is often used in quite specific contexts and which often has negative connotations. The French sentence also contains a string of adjectives, which doesn’t seem to work as well in English.

What’s more, as a French classic, madeleines need no introduction to the French cook. In contrast, I believe they are less well-known among the British public. Since it’s helpful to know how what you’re making is meant to look like, I think it's helpful to provide a bit more context. I believe the adaptées à toutes les faims has been used here to express that, given their small size, you can treat yourself to one even if you’re not particularly hungry.

Given all of this, I decided to make quite a departure from the source text, and ended up with the following:

Try this recipe for madeleines, small crispy sponge cakes with delicate peaks.


No challenges came up during the cooking process per se. That said, my source recipe provided no indication of how much better to spoon into each mould, nor how many madeleines the recipe would produce. Fortunately, my partner has made madeleines before, so he was able.

Picture of cooked madeleines in the madeleine tin
Picture of a single madeleine with a cup of tea

Next time

I'm currently waiting for inspiration to strike – perhaps something savoury for a change.

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