On a blog that quotes ancient Chinese texts (translated into English), one of the questions we always confront is: What did the author[s] mean? It is a fair question; one that we can never answer sufficiently. We certainly can make educated guesses, but we can never be 100% sure of our answers!
While it is important to try to discern the historical and cultural context, the complexities of ancient languages, the biases and perspectives of the author[s] and the biases and perspectives of the translators and/or interpreters, none of these factors can bring us to the point of absolute certainty. We should know this based on the fact that we generally have trouble ascertaining what people mean in the present tense!
We see this dynamic at work in the realm of politics on a daily basis. Let's say President Obama (or the leader of your own country) gives a major speech in which the predominate subject is x. X will make us strong and x is why our nation is exceptional, he declares. If we want to stay ahead in the race of nations, we need to develop better x.
After the address, the various pundits and news organizations will spend their time telling us what x really means. Those outlets and pundits who tend to be more sympathetic to the president will tell us that x means x and a little of y and z too. A more middle of the road news organization might tell us that, when the president expounds on x, he's really talking more about t, u and r. Turn on Fox News and you'll quickly learn that x is nothing more than a code word for j with some sinister aspects of p sprinkled in for good measure!
For some politicians, like Mitt Romney, x is a moving target. In 1996, x meant x, plain and simple. Four years later, Romney will say that x still means x, but colored by d and k. By 2004, x has turned into c and Romney will tell you he has never supported x in any way, shape or form. Now, here in 2012, c (which used to be x by way of d and k) has morphed into n and Romney complains when x, c, d or k are brought up that he has NEVER been in favor of any of them.
Back when Bill Clinton was a hot commodity, the definition of x was determined solely by the audience being addressed. In the morning, he would address one group and declare that x was synonymous with a. Around lunch time, he would address a second group and state that x was synonymous with e. In early evening, he would address a third group and announce that x was synonymous with o.
The problem here, of course, is that a, e, and o are mutually exclusive. If you support one, you can't very well support the other two! So, everyone ends up thinking that x supports the policy they favor and are aghast when Clinton would go before the nation to say that x really is q!
And then we return to President Obama. X means different things depending on whether he was a candidate and when he then became president. Candidate Obama went around the country declaring that x is x. If elected, he would stand firm on x. He said he believed in x with every fiber of his soul. If you believe that x is of the utmost importance, then he said you needed to vote for him.
Once elected, each x meant anything but x! X could mean any other letter of the alphabet EXCEPT x. Each time he changes the definition of x -- like to f or m -- he explains that x had to change because the circumstances have changed.
Now that he's a candidate again, he says that x does mean x unequivocally and anyone who suggests otherwise is just trying to confuse things. So, when Fox News or CNN tells us that x is really w, Obama declares they are just plain wrong.
My point here is that, if we have this much trouble trying to figure out what others mean in the here and now, imagine the difficulties we face trying to ascertain for certain what people who've been dead for thousands of years truly meant!!