I found the following example beside the plastic model of a bowl of ramen in a restaurant at Narita Airport:
「こちらの料理はただ今準備中です。」 (1) This menu is not already prepared.
I wonder what foreigners who don’t speak any Japanese would make of this. Why is it difficult to understand?
First, let’s start with a minor but nevertheless important point. In English, “menu” is used to refer to a list of items. When referring to just one item, it’s better to use “dish” or “item”. So, I would refer to that bowl of ramen as “this dish” or “this item”. Otherwise, the restaurant may give the wrong impression that it is not ready to do business!
Next, what is wrong with “not already prepared”? “Already” is usually used to refer to actions that have been completed by or before a certain time. It is not usually used with “not” unless one is indicating surprise in a question such as, “You have not bought that already, have you?” If we work back from the translation in (1) into Japanese, it won’t make much sense either.
I guess a better “reverse” translation will be:
The restaurant owner is probably trying to tell us that s/he cannot offer this item at the moment and that it will be available sometime in the future. How do we translate this in English? A direct word-for-word translation will look like (4):
(4) This item is being prepared at the moment.
The sentence is perfectly grammatical but why does it sound a bit awkward? Remember that this is a restaurant after all and to give it a more personal touch, we want to avoid passive sentences with non-human nouns as the subject. It will sound friendlier to say:
(5) We are preparing this item at the moment.
But (5) sounds like this item is not ready now, but may be ready two hours later. If that is the case, one might think, “Well, isn’t the restaurant supposed to be preparing all the items on the menu? Why put a special sign beside this particular dish?” The item could be ready in two hours or it might not be available today but at a later date. We have no way of knowing unless we check with the restaurant. So, to be on the safe side, we can translate this as:
(6) This item is not available yet.
Or to give it a positive tone (we want to give customers a good impression, don’t we?) we can say:
This item will be available soon (or indicate an appropriate time)
The original Japanese sentence looks simple enough, but even such a short sentence can be tricky. We need to take contextual factors into consideration and in some cases come up with suitable paraphrases instead of translating word for word.