We describe a novel procedure to map the field equations of nonlinear Ricci-based metric-affine theories of gravity, coupled to scalar matter described by a given Lagrangian, into the field equations of general relativity coupled to a different scalar field Lagrangian. Our analysis considers examples with a single and N real scalar fields, described either by canonical Lagrangians or by generalized functions of the kinetic and potential terms. In particular, we consider several explicit examples involving f (R ) theories and the Eddington-inspired Born-Infeld gravity model, coupled to different scalar field Lagrangians. We show how the nonlinearities of the gravitational sector of these theories can be traded to nonlinearities in the matter fields and how the procedure allows to find new solutions on both sides of the correspondence. The potential of this procedure for applications of scalar field models in astrophysical and cosmological scenarios is highlighted.