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Context: two guys are talking about a fictional futuristic sport, which is basically athelets racing each other in some huge mecha suits. One of the guys seems interested about becoming a racer in the future, which by the character's description seems like it's hard work (you need to master lots of techniques and be good at lots of sports). The other one suddenly says:

[おれは努力を問われる以前にやりたいことがないからな……自分でも不思議だ。 なんでこんなに老け込んでんだろ、おれ」

I think 努力を問われる means activities that require or put to test your own strenght and effort, but im not sure. Going by context and a bit of guessing, i simply interpreted it as way to say that this character doesn't like doing things that require lots of effort (i know it isn't the exact meaning of やりたいことがない) and he just questions why he's "aging" (not in the literal sense of the word, but rather "becoming old" like in his own spirit) i think.

The thing is, i can't seem to make sense of that 以前に: i usually read it as "before" or "previously". Those meanings here don't really seem to make sense; either because i've intepreted the phrase in the wrong way, or maybe there's another way of using 以前に which i haven't seen yet.

Keep in mind that this is a pretty hard novel to read (at least for non-japanese learners) and it uses old grammar points and generally words that aren't used a lot in modern novels; i've been using it as a way of practising and for now despite my low skills i was able to follow most of the story. I would appreciate some help on this specific part of the dialogue. Thank you very much for reading this post!

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I think there's another way of using 以前に which you haven't seen yet. "A 以前に B" can be used when "far from A, the current status is B". For example:

彼は料理をする以前に野菜も洗えない
Far from (being able to) cook something, he can't even wash vegetables.

I return the topic to the original sentence. To 努力を問われる, there are several stages to overcome for the guy:
1. Be motivated for something
2. Make an effort towards something
3. Be tested by others for his efforts (努力を問われる)
But currently he is not motivated for anything (やりたいことがない). So it is far from 努力を問われる.

  • If he has to cook earlier, he can't wash the vegetables. – JACK Aug 25 at 14:58
  • 以前に can be used to indicate stepwise rather than time. Here I used it not in terms of time, but in terms of stages or gradations. – C. Fujinomiya Aug 25 at 15:39
  • He can't do the cooking first, if the vegetables aren't washed. – JACK Aug 25 at 15:45
  • @Jack 彼は料理をする以前に野菜も洗えない doesn't mean "He can't wash vegetables before cooking." It means "He can't wash vegetables, much less cook." It can be rephrased as 「彼は料理できるどころか野菜も洗えない。」 or 「彼は料理はおろか野菜を洗うこともできない。」 – Chocolate Aug 25 at 16:15
  • The problem is about his skill or situations which make it impossible to wash vagetables. If the vagetables aren't washed, it is far from cooking. – C. Fujinomiya Aug 25 at 16:18
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おれは努力を問われる以前にやりたいことがないからな……自分でも不思議だ。 なんでこんなに老け込んでんだろ、おれ
I have nothing I want to do rather than I’m required trying hard. It’s mysterious for me too. I wonder why I’m so old.

問う is “ask” so that 努力を問われる means “be asked if there is an sufficient effort”. In simpler way, “be required trying hard”.

以前に means “before”, he says “Before the problem that I’m required trying hard, there’s a problem that I have nothing I want to do.”

私が結婚できないのは可愛くないからではなくて、それ以前の問題だ。

老け込んでる means “be old”. Why he thinks he is old is because he has no passion for something he wants to do.

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