This passage comes from Underground by Haruki Murakami:


The translation by Alfred Birnbaum is

Why Hayashi - a senior medical doctor with an active "frontline" track record at the Ministry of Science and Technology - was chosen to carry out this mission remains unclear...

When I look around for examples of the expression, for example on here or here, it seems like instead of the above translation, it should be something like:

Why Hayashi, who has always stayed away from the "frontline" of the Ministry of Science and Technology, was chosen...

How is this ambiguity resolved?

Also should 「年長者であり医師であり」 be always understood as a "senior medical doctor" (i.e. someone who has worked as a doctor for a long time) or "a senior and a doctor"?

Thank you for any help.


3 Answers 3


This ~と一線を画す is an idiom, and in this context it means "to keep a distance from ~". It's not even ambiguous, and I think your translation attempt is correct.

年長者であり医師であり is of course "being a senior, and (also being) a doctor", and it's technically different from 年長の医師であり ("being a senior medical doctor"). I don't know the story, and this may not be a severe mistake.

  • Thank you for your help, see my comment to Halfway Dillitante's answer if you're interested. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 3:20
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    @ProjectBook Okay, so he has never been in 科学技術省, and I must say this is a pure mistake by the translator...
    – naruto
    Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 5:50

Let's go through it, bit by bit.



「年長者」 can mean "older person", but in context it can also mean "the oldest person within a given group". 「AでありB」means "~is A as well as B". So this part means that person is an older person (or the oldest person of the possible candidates?) who also happens to be a doctor. There is no actual indication of seniority as a doctor in the original sentence.


「武闘」 means "combat" and 「派」 refers to groups of people who are separated by given differences(i.e 猫派vs犬派). So in this context, 「武闘派」 likely refers to people who don't really like to cooperate with other people and instead are very aggressive in trying to get their way. 「Aとは一線を画する」 means to draw a clear line between A and oneself, so to put it all together, this means that the person being described has drawn a clear line between himself and the aggressive people at the Ministry of Science and Technology.


「敢えて」 refers to doing something that doesn't appear like a good idea or is difficult to do with some kind of intent. This makes it clear that 林 becoming the 実行者 does not appear to be a logical choice, or that there were other candidates for that position that seemed more likely to be appointed.

So to put it all together, a more accurate translation would be something closer to

The reason why Hayashi, who is older, a doctor, and has distanced himself from the aggressives at the Ministry of Science and Technology, was purposefully chosen to carry out (the project? the mission?) is unclear...

The 「が」 at the end is difficult to translate without more context. It can either be a "While" to be placed at the very beginning of the sentence, or be translated as a "but..." at the very end.

  • The point of the question is mainly to question why Alfred Birnbaum en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Birnbaum, a seemingly very qualified translator would translate that sentence in that way. After reading a bit further, it seems very likely that 科学技術省の「武闘派」refers to the other perpetrators of the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokyo_subway_sarin_attack who actually are members of the Agency and who are "aggressive" (there is no indication that Hayashi himself is a member - he's just a doctor). It would seem like your translation is the correct one, but honestly who am I to judge? Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 3:17
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    @ProjectBook I dug around and figured out what happened. It looks like an honest mistake. I've added what I found out to the bottom of the answer, please take a look if you are interested. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 4:40
  • I don't think Hayashi has ever worked at the Agency (no such reference in the Jap page about him). It seems like that line from Wikipedia comes straight out from Birnbaum's translation. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 5:01
  • @ProjectBook You are right, I don't see anything about it on the Japanese wiki. Looks like whoever created the wiki page made a mistake. I will remove this portion from my answer as it appears incorrect. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 5:19
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    As for the mistranslation, I can only say that Birnbaum is human and therefore is still capable of making mistakes, just a lot less than others not as good as him at translation. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 5:22

「一線を画する」 is to have a clear difference from something else, so your translation seems a better fit. In the original translation, does "track record" stand for 「一線を画する」? That's weird.

The translation for 「年長者であり医師であり」 does not convey the meaning of the original sentence, either. Doesn't the phrase "senior medical doctor" sound like the name of a medical job post? He is just a doctor who is old, at least in this context. Here, it is used as a source of wonder, i.e. being senior and being a doctor makes Hayashi an unlikely person to be chosen as an actual person to perform the poison terrorism, because such a person -- relatively old and intelligent -- would more likely be placed in the headquarter or somewhere rearer.

  • Thank you for your help, see my comment to Halfway Dillitante's answer if you're interested. Commented Oct 9, 2018 at 3:20

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