After President Trump tweeted and then deleted a cryptic message early Wednesday morning, many took to Twitter to mock the apparent typo. With #covfefe trending, Trump supporters began defending the tweet. Evidently, if you add a space and an apostrophe, Google Translate will translate “cov fe’fe” as “I will stand up” in Arabic. I tried it myself:
“Cov fe’fe” is not Arabic. If it was Arabic, I suspect Arabic speakers would have said something about Trump’s tweet pretty quickly. Nevertheless, Google Translate thinks it is. So Trump supporters took to Twitter to educate people about a language none of them spoke:
For some reason this person thinks Afghans speak Arabic too!
Sean thinks Trump is playing twelve dimensional chess by Tweeting in Arabic after midnight.
Shannon thinks it makes perfect sense!
William thinks Trump was trolling America by tweeting in Arabic and then deleting it.
One Trump supporter did a write up explaining what his “God Emperor” meant by “I will stand up.”
Like I said, “cov fe’fe” is not Arabic. But as a former Arabic student, I was puzzled as to why it was translating “cov fe’fe” to “I will stand up.” “I will stand up” in Modern Standard Arabic is sa-aqaf or perhaps sawfa aqaf (the difference is the certainty of the future event, with sawfa indicating uncertainty).
So the translation for what Google thinks it is, sawfa faqif doesn’t make sense. But bad translations are normal for Google, it’s why it thinks fe’fe is faqif that interested me.
There is no standard transliteration (changing from one alphabet to another) from the Latin alphabet English uses to the Arabic alphabet, but Google thinking “cov fe’fe” was someone trying to write “سوف فقف” (again, sawfa faqif) seemed like quite a stretch to me.
So I did some digging into different Arabic dialects (I learned Modern Standard Arabic in school, the version of the language used officially versus colloquially).
If you’re into languages, this is was a fun puzzle to solve. If you’re not, things are about to get really boring so you might want to skip down to the paragraph above the last graphic.
First, Google transliterated “cov” into سوف (pronounced sawfa). If you go to Google Translate and input this alone, it doesn’t work, while sawfa translates to will.
But when you enter a second word, Google now thinks that “cov” is an Arabic word. For example, if you just type “cov fe” now Google will transliterate “cov” into سوف (sawfa) and fe into في (fi) which means “in” or “at” depending on context.
So what’s with Google’s hesitance? I don’t know exactly how it’s been programmed, but obviously Google thinks the C in “cov” is now a soft C like in the word “cent.” At first I thought maybe this was because of Francophone Arab influence but in French a C before an O makes the hard C that sounds like a K.
Regardless, “cov” to sawfa isn’t too much of a stretch now. But what about fe’fe?
First of all, I don’t know why someone added an apostrophe into “covfefe.” It wasn’t there when Trump tweeted it. But when you add that and the space, Google thinks you are trying to transliterate فقف (faqif) and translates it all as “I will stand.”
But what is more confusing to me than “cov” to sawfa is “fe’fe” to faqif. Why does Google think that?
In Arabic, the letter ق (qaf), the middle letter in فقف (faqif) in is most commonly transliterated as Q. You have already seen this in words like Iraq or al-Qaida. Sometimes it’s transliterated as K like in the word Koran.
Less often, it’s transliterated as a G, like in the name of former Libyan president, Muammar Gaddafi.
All three words and the name use the same letter in Arabic, but are represented differently in English. That’s why occasionally you will see Koran spelled Quran or Gaddafi spelled Qaddafi (there’s even more variants, but that’s because of other Arabic letters, not the one we’re focusing on).
Part of the reason for these different transliterations is because Arabic regional dialects pronounce the letters differently (think about how most Americans pronounce Rs versus how Bostonians do — Havard Yard versus Havahd Yahd).
In North Africa (like Gaddafi’s home Libya) and the Gulf, ق is often pronounced like an English G.
In Iraq and Kuwait, sometimes ق is even pronounced like an English J. This depends on your education and tribe and a lot of other neat things that influence the way we speak, but it was pretty confusing for me, who learned Modern Standard Arabic, when I was there.
Finally, in Egypt, the ق is often not pronounced like a consonant all! Instead, it’s a glottal stop — like the sound you make between the T and the N when you say “button.” Try it!
Confusingly, there already is another letter in Arabic that makes that same sound, ء (hamza). That letter is most often transliterated as an apostrophe. (There’s one of those letters in al-Qaida too, which is why it is sometimes written in English as al-Qa’ida).
So to bring this all together, Google has to figure out what Arabic dialect you are trying to speak when you write an Arabic word in the Latin alphabet into Google Translate and there are a lot of variations.
When you add the space into “covfefe” it makes it two words. When you add the apostrophe, Google thinks you are adding another letter that often makes a Q sound. Thus, “cov fe’fe” becomes sawfa faqif or a very bad translation of “I will stand up.” It’s not Arabic, but a well-meaning Google Translate thinks it is.
There you have it. How one weird internet coincidence started yet another baseless conspiracy associated with the alt-right. Hopefully this one doesn’t lead to anyone to senseless violence, as they are wont to.
Umberto Eco said, “translation is the art of failure.” I’m not a fluent Arabic speaker and I haven’t traveled to all Arabic speaking countries. If you are or have and think I’ve gotten something wrong, please let me know in the comments.
Update: This post originally said Google thought “cov fe’fe’” was sawfa faqaf, but a native Arabic speaker has informed me faqaf is not an Arabic word in any dialect. The closet word would be faqif (so stand/stop) and this post has been updated to reflect that.