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I have these two sentences:

  • 私は映画を仕事のあと見た。
  • 仕事のあと映画を見た。

To me, they seem equivalent in meaning. However, for the Google Translator the first one means 'I watched the movie after work.' while the second one means 'I watched a movie after work.'

Is this translation accurate? If so, changing the position of the direct object (the movie) has changed the meaning of the sentence, hasn't it? What are the grammatical rules to know where to put the direct object?

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  • Not so related to this question, but if you want to use translator, deepl is way better than Google Translator.
    – Skye-AT
    Jul 5 at 2:41
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Whether to translate 映画 as “a movie”, “movies”, “the movie”, or “the movies” depends on the context and cannot be determined by its position in a sentence alone. However, word order does affect the focus of a sentence.

When there is no additional context, 私は映画を仕事のあと見た looks like a (bit redundant) response to a question about when the speaker watched 映画. In other words, the sentence somewhat puts 仕事のあと into focus. If it is indeed a response to such a question, 映画 must be old information to the listener. Google Translate might take that into consideration when it translates it as “the movie”.

仕事のあと映画を見た, on the other hand, looks more like a response to a question about what the speaker did after work. 映画を見た is put into focus. Then, 映画 is new information to the listener and “a movie” may be more appropriate.

But that’s when these are written as independent sentences. How they are interpreted in real life highly depends on the context and also on which part is given prominence when pronounced.

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Those two Japanese sentences mean the same thing, although the latter is more natural. Japanese word order is more flexible than that of English.

The Japanese language does not have the equivalents of "a", "the" and "-s". If there is absolutely no context, even a bilingual human cannot often tell if the correct English translation of 猫 in a sentence is "the cat", "a cat", "cats", or "the cats". In your case, a human would probably think "a movie" (singular) is most likely, but no one can be 100% sure. And if there are two translations that are equally possible, you cannot predict which is chosen by Google Translate.

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