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I learned that てしまいます can both express regret and having finished a task.

How can one differentiate between the two meanings without context ?

Example: 水を飲んでしまいました. - I have finished drinking the water / I drank the water (with a sense of regret)

If one cannot differentiate without context, is there a way to make explicit which meaning is implied ?

  • It doesn't have two meanings in Japanese. Just English speakers tend to translate variously. – user4092 Jan 11 '18 at 7:33
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It only has one meaning: "to do something in an irreversible manner". Applying it to various examples may produce various expressions in other languages. But that's a problem of translation, rather than that of the meaning of the word itself.

In the case of your example, 水を飲んでしまった doesn't mean "I have finished drinking the water", (or rather I suspect there are any cases where it means "to have finished something"), but "I drank water", and in this case sense of irreversibility usually reflects that of regret.

This sense of irreversibility is not always rendered into that of regret. For example, やってしまおう is an encouragement or an invitation to do something that would feel reluctant otherwise.

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