here are hundreds of thousands of French food recipes available to anyone interested in French cooking. Of course, they’re written in French, and that can pose a problem for cooks who don’t read French. But it is not an insurmountable problem. Translating recipes written in French into English is not as difficult as it may first appear to someone not conversant in French. At least that’s what I’ve found to be the case.
With English-language sources of French recipes available, why would anyone want to expend the effort to learn how to read recipes in French? In my experience, English-language French recipes can be broken primarily into two groups: 1) recipes written originally in French and translated into English; and 2) recipes written originally in English, but with a claim of French provenance. Each group has its specific problems, but the biggest problem in general can be described with one word: adaptation.
During the process of translating a recipe into English, the translator adapts the recipe to match his or her own opinion of the reader’s skill level, kitchen, and ingredient availability. Since the reader will also automatically adapt any recipe for his or her own skill level, kitchen, and ingredient availability, the extra level of adaptation added by the translator removes the recipe one step further from its source. Even when a French recipe is written initially in English, the author may well have made adaptations for the non-French cook that exceed the bounds of what is necessary to simply transmit the recipe’s information. (There is a third group of French recipes originally written in a third language and translated into English, but this group is small, usually of obviously poor quality, and will be ignored for most of this discussion.)
In my opinion, the best source material for French recipes is written in French. Whether from books, magazines, or newspapers, or even downloaded from the Internet, when it comes to recipes describing the preparation of French food, those written by French sources tend to be best in the original French. There are exceptions, of course. Some native English speakers have worked and studied in France and then written exceptional recipes in English to describe what they have learned. (Linda Dannenberg’s two books on Paris bistros and bakeries come to mind.) And then there are others whose recipes would be barely recognizable to a French reader. (I’d like to think that I’m part of the first group rather than the second.)
Unfortunately, many French-language recipes are translated by translators who have a limited knowledge of French cooking, or by translators who allow their own cooking style to dominate the translation.
I find most common errors are related to the conversion of measurements from metric to English. Others relate to the names of cooking tools and descriptions of their use. Open up the English and French versions of the new edition of the Larousse Gastronomique and do a side-by-side comparison; you’ll find whole paragraphs of descriptions in the English version that have a different meaning or don’t exist in the French version. You’ll also find pieces of the French version missing from the English. And you’ll find lots of mistakes in converting measurements. The Larousse Gastronomique is not unique; this problem is quite common. And, the fault may not lie solely with the translator. The editor of the English-language version may also have made changes to recipes for his or her own unfathomable reasons. (This happens even when a translation is not involved.)
To translate recipes from French to English, you don’t have to learn how to speak French. In fact, although a general knowledge of French is helpful, it is possible, as has been my experience, to become quite proficient in translating recipes without such knowledge. In my case, the process started with one recipe. In January 1997, I was in the town of Bergerac in southwestern France. I purchased a cooking magazine that was running a feature on tarts. (I knew there was a feature on tarts because there was a picture of one on the cover!) My wife had previously requested that I learn how to make a leek tart and I figured that the magazine would have a recipe for one. Besides, the cost was less than 10 francs, or less than $2, and the magazine contained a lot of pretty pictures. I took it back to California, and with the help of my wife’s college French and a slim, weathered French-English dictionary she had bought in college, we were able to cobble together a workable translation in about an hour.
Now, five years later, although I can sight-read most recipes in French, there are still two primary tools I rely upon to help
translate recipes: a small volume of food terms and an electronic dictionary. Even someone just starting to learn to read French recipes can easily get along with just these two items. (I make this statement after spending a few hundred dollars on various dictionaries and reference books that now gather dust on my shelf.) The book on food terms is the L’ABC de la Gastronomie Française, or The A-Z of French Food. This slim, pocket-size volume of about 4,000 definitions is the most complete work that I have found on the subject. The electronic dictionary is version 1.3 of the Harper-Collins French-English Dictionary with about 100,000 entries. It runs on my Palm handheld and is available for many other systems. The advantage of the electronic dictionary over one in book form is that words can be accessed very fast by just entering the first few letters. This is especially helpful with verbs, because the form of the verb used in the recipe is not always the root form displayed in the dictionary. As letters are entered, a list of possible matches is displayed and the root word can then be selected.
When I translate recipes that I receive directly from chefs, I sometimes have to refer to secondary information sources. This is usually because the chef has included an esoteric ingredient or specified an unusual piece of equipment. In these cases, I often do a Google search for the term with both the English and French search engines, or I sometimes consult other reference books such as Larousse Gastronomique. I may also thumb through an illustrated catalog of French cookery equipment. On a couple of occasions, I have contacted the chef for further explanation.
What are my sources of French recipes written in French? Although I’ve found recipes in a myriad of places, the ones I use come primarily from books and magazines, as well as from chefs that I know, either directly or through friends. While French
recipes downloaded from the Internet can be as unreliable as those written in English, there are a few sources that seem to be both reliable and thorough. These include Chef Simon, CuisineAZ.com, Meilleur du Chef, Thuriès Magazine Gastronomie, and Bon Appétit Bien Sûr. Some caution is required when pulling recipes off the Internet because not all recipes posted in French are in fact French recipes. There are a number of French-language web sites in Canada, for example, that specialize in the cooking of North America, not France.
When traveling in France, I’ve found recipes in non-food magazines in waiting rooms, homes, and airplanes. Many French newspapers, Le Figaro for example, also produce glossy, weekly “magazines” that include a food section.
Cooking magazines are incredibly inexpensive in France, with many costing less than 2€. Surprisingly, many of these same magazines are available at one of my local newsstands for $4.25 — which is still less expensive than cooking magazines in the United States. If your local newsstand doesn’t carry magazines from France, subscriptions for most of the better magazines can be purchased for local delivery. Some magazines, such as Cusine et Vins de France, offer subscriptions directly, while others must be purchased through distributors, such as ExpressMag. That same 2€ magazine only costs about $3.90 when delivered to my door. As an added bonus, French cooking magazines are incredibly well illustrated, which makes the visualization and preparation of their recipes easier.
I prefer to buy French-language cookbooks after I’ve had a chance to thumb through them, rather than basing my decision on a review or a description on a web page. When I go to France I spend time in bookstores, but I rarely purchase the books there — especially if they are big and heavy. Instead, I order the books via the Internet from either amazon.fr, alapage.com, or chapitre.com. Each of these sites discounts most cookbooks by at least five percent, and that often covers most of the cost of shipping. Unfortunately, many good French-language cookbooks are devoid of illustrations.
The variety of cookbooks in French is as great as for cookbooks written in English. I generally stick with books written by individual chefs. I have found these to provide a good, broad source of recipes. I assume that most of these books are ghostwritten, but the recipes seem to be reliable — most of the time. It is also easy to find compilations of recipes from chefs of a particular region. These books sometimes prove to be less reliable, but are still generally worthwhile. French-language cookbooks can suffer from zealous editors making untested, last-minute changes to recipes just like cookbooks in other languages.
For some books, it is interesting to compare the translated version with the French original. Sometimes it is almost impossible to believe that the translator started with the same source material. For example, twenty years ago, the French publisher Robert Laffont SA produced a large collection of cookbooks written by France’s top chefs. Many of these cookbooks were also published in English by Macmillan’s Papermac division in London. To Macmillan’s credit, the disclaimer “edited and adapted” appears on the title page, but until one does a side-by-side comparison of the French and English versions, it is hard to judge how much editing and adaptation took place instead of strict translation. The answer is: too much!
The title page of French-language cookbooks can also reveal if the book was actually translated into French from another language. Traduction is French for “translation” and traducteur is French for “translator.” The title pages of a recent series of cookbooks “written” by the chefs of Le Cordon Bleu, the cooking school in Paris and a few other cities, show that the books were written in English, published in Germany, and translated into French.
It is also important to understand the gist of the articles that accompany recipes in French magazines. Upon closer examination, it may turn out that the recipes have an origin that is not French. (Although I find it interesting sometimes to compare the French version of a Chinese recipe to other versions I may know of the same dish, the result still doesn’t quite fit my definition of French food.)
Okay. You now have a pile of French-language recipes and a couple of tools to help in their translation. Where do you start? You can start with the title, which will often provide clues as to what the main ingredients are or how the dish is prepared. French recipe titles are often quite descriptive and unambiguous. They will often include a term such as cocotte (a type of saucepan), marmite (another type of pot), or a poêle (a type of frying pan), which provide some indication as to how the dish is cooked, as do terms such as daube (a type of stew), confit (a method of slow cooking) or fricassée (another method of stewing). If there is an accompanying picture of the finished dish, it may be possible to tell what the recipe is like without translating the title. Once you become proficient in translating titles, selecting recipes from non-illustrated sources becomes very simple. It is amazing
that by just learning the meaning of some of the common words used in titles, the process of selecting recipes for translation becomes quite quick and effortless.
After the title, most recipes will then list the ingredients. Depending upon the writing style of the recipe author, the ingredient list may be incredibly detailed or incredibly non-specific, or somewhere in between. The order of the ingredients will probably not match the order in which they appear in the instructions. Some recipes list the ingredients in what appears to be their order of importance in the recipe. Some ingredient lists appear to be random. Sometimes the ingredients are given only in the instructions and there isn’t a separate list.
In most modern recipes, standardized units of measure are used, but occasionally, old terms, such as verre (glass) or tasse (cup), will appear. The experienced cook can usually estimate an appropriate equivalent to non-specific measurements such as these. Common volumetric units of measure include the liter (abbreviated as “l”), the deciliter or one-tenth of a liter (abbreviated as “dl”), and the centiliter or one-hundredth of a liter (abbreviated as “cl”). (I have always found it curious that French-language recipes specify deciliters and centiliters, both units of measure declared archaic in 1960 by scientific convention, but do not use milliliters, the accepted unit of measure for sub-liter amounts.) This web site has a conversion engine to simplify conversion of all the units of measure used in French recipes.
For small volumetric quantities, the French equivalents of the teaspoon and tablespoon are commonly used. A cuiller à café (abbreviated as cuil. à café, c. à café, or cuil. à c.) is essentially equivalent to an American teaspoon and is equal to 5 ml. A cuiller à soupe (abbreviated as cuil. à soupe, c. à soupe or cuil. à s.) is essentially equivalent to an American tablespoon and is equal to 15 ml. To confuse things a bit more, sometimes cuiller is written as cuillère or cuillerée — all with the same meaning!
Dry measures in French-language recipes are generally given in grams or kilograms. Rather than converting these units to English measures, I generally leave them as is since I prefer to use a scale, instead of measuring cups, to measure dry ingredients. (And my scale conveniently displays both English
and metric units.) For example, I know that 150 grams of all-purpose flour is equivalent to 1.07 cups using English units, but the metric weight equivalent is much easier to measure. For those who still insist on converting this type of measurement, this site’s conversion engine can help here, too.
Also, I rarely translate liquid measurements from metric to their English equivalents. One liter of water weighs essentially one kilogram. So I know that a measure listed in a recipe as “20 cl” will weigh about 200 grams. I could use a standard measuring cup — most are graduated in both English and metric units — but the scale is more accurate and I can measure the ingredient in any appropriate container.
Other common units of measure in French-language recipes are less specific or harder to quantify. Some examples are words like gouttes (drops), feuilles (leaves or sheets), tranches (slices), boule (ball, as in the shape of celery root), branche (branch or stalk, as in a stalk of celery), botte (bunch, as in a bunch of parsley), and brins (strands or sprigs, as in a sprig of parsley). And many of these terms raise other questions — for example, how many sprigs of parsley are there in a bunch? The translator will need to use his or her knowledge of cooking to know how much parsley is really appropriate for the recipe.
The listing of the actual ingredients called for by the recipe may include very general terms — an oignon is simply an onion. Or
a more specific term — an oignon rouge is a red-skinned onion. Or even a specific variety of onion my be specified — an oignon Roscoff is a specific variety of red-skinned onion from the region around Roscoff in Brittany. Early on, I spent a lot of time referring to my L’ABC de la Gastronomie Française to determine what each ingredient was, but over time I found myself easily remembering most of what I earlier read. It’s important to check on each ingredient initially because sometimes words in French aren’t what they seem in English. For example, sucre en poudre may sound like “powdered sugar” but it is ordinary, granulated sugar — not powdered, confectioner’s, or even finely granulated sugar.
The words for many French ingredients can be translated into English, but the ingredients themselves may not be available outside the locale where the recipe is from — even in France. A lot of seafood may only be available in small areas of France. For example, omble chevalier, a char similar to salmon trout, is usually only available in northeastern France. Luckily, salmon from other parts of the world can be substituted for omble chevalier in many recipes. Saint-Pierre is widely available in France and is equivalent to the John Dory available in the eastern United States, but requires a substitute in other parts of the U.S.
Occasionally, there really is no equivalent ingredient in English and, although the recipe can be translated, it may be difficult to duplicate exactly as written outside of
France. For example, it is not uncommon nowadays to find powdered, dehydrated stock listed as an ingredient in a French recipe. These powders are readily available in small cans at just about any supermarket in France, but to my knowledge, are not exported outside of France. The dried stock available in the United States is a very different product.
Other products that may not be duplicated outside of France include items like cheese, which is often specified by brand or AOC, as well as prepared foods and pre-packaged items. On the other hand, Noilly Pratt, a specific brand of French vermouth commonly called for in recipes, is exported to other parts of the world and is readily available outside of France.
The French word for “bacon” is lard, but the French is more specific than English. Lard fumé is smoked bacon. Lard maigre is streaky bacon. Lard salé is salt pork. Lard gras is pig fat. (Saindoux is lard.) In other words, lard in French is not equivalent to lard in English.
Meat is butchered differently in France than in Great Britain or the United States. L’ABC de la Gastronomie Française can be very helpful in determining what the local cut should be, but sometimes it is necessary to consult reference charts, such as the ones in the English-language version of Larousse Gastronomique, to be sure that the appropriate cut is specified in the translation.
In French, adjectives often come after the noun, whereas in English they tend to precede the noun. For example, oignon haché translates as chopped onion. Depending on the writing style of the recipe’s author, simple instructions may appear in the ingredient list. But most of the time the preparation description will appear in the recipe instructions — either in a specific instruction or even as a one-word adjective in an instruction. In other words, the ingredient list may call for “one onion,” but the instruction will refer to it as a “chopped onion.” Careful reading of instructions will prevent errors in the final recipe translation and preparation.
Instructions in French recipes will often leave out information that would be considered mandatory in English-language recipes. For example, baking recipes in English will usually specify the type and size of the pan or mold to use, if one is required. In French recipes, the instructions may only refer to the moule (mold) in general terms. It is assumed that the reader will know what type and size of mold to use based on other recipe information, such as the title. This seems to be especially common for tarts and quiches. A cake recipe may call for a moule à manqué (literally, mold for a failed cake). This actually is a simple cake pan. I determined this fact by doing a Google search that led me to an on-line catalog for a French supplier. (Of course the recipe didn’t specify what size cake pan to use. I determined the size by referring to similar recipes and by a bit of trial and error.)
Modern recipes in French will generally specify oven temperatures by degree, but older recipes simply describe the oven as fort (strong), vif (hot), doux (mild), etcetera. (Of course, this is the case, too, with older English recipes written before ovens had thermostats.) Occasionally, a recipe will specify the temperature in a unit of measure called a thermostat (abbreviated as therm or t). This is a unit similar to the British “gas mark.” It can also be converted with this web site’s conversion engine. More commonly, French recipes will specify temperatures in degrees measured on the Celsius scale. If no specific unit is listed in the recipe, centigrade should be assumed. And although some recipes will specify early in a recipe to preheat an oven, many will leave this detail out altogether.
The biggest problem for someone translating French-language recipes is, like throughout the French language, verbs. On more than one occasion, I’ve sat in a room full of French friends while they argued about verbs. There are a lot of them, and they have a lot of different forms. Luckily, the verbs used in recipes are almost always in either the infinitive or the imperative form of the second person plural and will end with, respectively, either the letters er or ez. For example, the phrase laver et émincer les poireaux is simply “wash and thinly slice the leeks.” The subject noun “you” is implied. It could also have been written as lavez et émincez les poireaux. Verbs ending in er are commonly found in the dictionary whereas those ending in ez are not. By changing the ez to er, you can easily find the verb and its translation.
The previous illustration also points to a common mistake made by the novice when translating French to English. Many French words look like English words but have different meanings. In this case, émincer means to thinly slice, not to mince. The earlier example of the word lard (bacon) is another example. Another common misunderstanding revolves around the French verb mixer. In most cases, the meaning here is “to puree,” as in to puree something in a blender. Mixer is also used as a noun when referring to a blender. Sometimes it may be referring to pureeing in a food processor, but usually the term for food processor, robot coupe, is then included in the sentence. Note, I have on one or two occasions seen the word robot used as verb indicating “to process.”
One verb used often in recipes is faire, meaning “to do” or “to make.” It is usually used in combination with an intransitive verb. For example, faire revenir les poireaux translates as “brown the leeks.” Faire is the root form, but it is not uncommon to run across the same verb in some of its other forms, such as fait, fassiez, faites, and faisais. Depending on the dictionary you use, entries for these other forms may refer you back to the root word, or they may be missing altogether. For me, verbs of this type initially posed one of the more difficult issues of translating French-language recipes until I learned that they could usually be ignored.
Gender can also pose a problem. Luckily, when looking up words in an electronic dictionary, only the first few letters need to
be entered before possible words start to appear. Most dictionaries list both masculine and feminine forms of the same word together. Plurals pose less of a problem. Most plural nouns end with an added s. Some will end with an added x, such as in the previous example, where poireaux is the plural form of poireau (leek).
Certain common phrases will appear in recipes over and over. Some of these are hors du feu (off the heat), pendent ce temps (in the meantime), petit à petit (little by little), dans un récipient (in a bowl), and jusqu’à (up to, until). If a direct translation of the phrase makes little sense, the true meaning can usually be gleaned from the translation of the full sentence.
Cooking tools will often have names that are not listed in a standard dictionary. For these, context and a few searches through catalogs with pictures will usually provide some answers. Some examples are:
Finally, French is filled with a lot of “little” words — articles. The use of “a” and “the” is probably no more prevalent in French than in English, but it appears
to be so since their spellings change with usage. Le, la, l’, and les all mean “the” but they are each used in different circumstances, i.e., le before singular masculine nouns beginning with a consonant, la before singular feminine nouns beginning with a consonant, l’ before singular masculine or feminine nouns beginning with a vowel or a silent h, and les before all plural nouns. Similarly, un and une mean “a” or “an,” and the form you use depends on the gender of the noun that follows the article. The same is true for du, de la, de l’, and des, which mean “some” or “any.” Luckily, since translation of French requires neither the ability to write or to speak the language, remembering the correct usage of these articles is unimportant. For the most part, they can be ignored!
As my ability to translate recipes has grown since 1997, one significant axiom I’ve learned is to translate first, adapt second. In other words, I try to first translate each recipe literally before I adapt the recipe to my cooking style and locally available ingredients. In fact, I try to adapt recipes as little as possible. I do add details that I like to see in recipes and that fill out the instructions. I also move instructional information relating to mise en place up to the ingredients list rather than leaving it in the instructions. For example, if the French-language recipe calls for one onion in the ingredients and then in the instructions calls for the onion to be minced, I just list the onion in the ingredients list as “1 onion, minced.”
Encouraging everyone who is seriously interested in French cooking to learn how to read recipes in French may be described as a fool’s errand. I can only cite my own experience as an example of how it is possible to significantly improve one’s knowledge of French food and its preparation through learning how to translate recipes. The improvements I have made in my knowledge and abilities are not solely due to these new-found skills of translation, but translating has played a significant role in the entire process.
The author wishes to gratefully thank Ken Broadhurst, of Saint Aignan, France, for his superb editing assistance with the essay.
The recipe for Sauce Robert in the original French translates simply as: “Brown 2 finely chopped onions in 25 grams (2 tablespoons) of butter. Add 2 dl (3/4 cup) of white wine and 1 dl (3/8 cup) of vinegar, and reduce until almost dry. Add 1/2 liter (2 cups) of brown sauce or demi-glace. Adjust the seasoning. Thin a heaping tablespoon of Dijon-style mustard with a little of the sauce.Then, off the heat, combine this mixture to the remainder of the sauce. Strain the sauce through a chinois using a small ladle to push the solids through mesh.”
Compare the above recipe with the translation as printed in the English-language version shown to the right. Some parts are very close to the original, but others differ significantly.
Considering its diminutive size, it is amazing that L’ABC de la Gastronomie Française is possibly the most complete work of its type.
An electronic dictionary, such as this one based on the Harper-Collins French-English Dictionary, speeds up the process of translation when compared to the printed version of the same work. As letters are entered on the input line indicated by the arrow, possible words begin to appear. Click on the desired word and a translation such as the one shown will be displayed.
French cooking magazines are colorful, packed with illustrated recipes, and generally very inexpensive — especially when compared to American cooking magazines.
Many of France’s better chefs have “written” one or more cookbooks. In general, the quality of these is quite good. Unfortunately, the same can not be said about many of their translations.
Some of the compilations of the recipes provided by multiple chefs are also excellent sources of new recipes. This particular series has provided instructions for many enjoyable meals.
This series is a good example of the axiom that not all books published in French are of French origin or contain French recipes.
The following is a literal translation of the recipe shown above. This is the first recipe I attempted to translate back in 1997, but the translation below was done recently. As shown, the recipe is too literal and requires much additional editing to make it more familiar to an English-speaking audience.
250 grams puff pastry
600 grams fresh leeks, both white and green parts
1/2 branch celery
200 milliliters heavy cream
1 tablespoon cornstarch
70 grams Comté cheese
50 grams butter
salt and pepper
Yield: 6 servings
Degree of difficulty: simple
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Baking time: 25 minutes