Why Trump Supporters Think #covfefe is a Secret Message to Terrorists

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Islam does actually mean “submission” in Arabic so this meme creator imagines that covfefe is a coded anti-Muslim message.

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:

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Google Translate was set to Arabic for me automatically because despite its shortcomings, it’s a lot quicker than the Hans Wehr dictionary. Google thinks “cov fe’fe” is “سوف فقف” (sawfa faqif).

“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).

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Most Arabs only hear Modern Standard Arabic on the news.

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.

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Google does not think “cov” alone is Arabic.

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.

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Add a second word, and Google thinks cov is Arabic.

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.

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Nobody knew how to spell Gaddafi (DoD/Wikimedia Commons photo).

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.

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The author posing for a cliche Baghdad palace picture in 2011.

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 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 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. 

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It gets a little confusing at the bottom because Arabic is read right to left. Also, Google transliterated V and F as the same Arabic letter.

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.

The War Against Islamic State Has Jumped 1,500 Miles to Libya

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Demonstrations in Libya, 2011 (Wikimedia Commons)

It appears a pending decision was made to expand the war against Islamic State (IS) to Libya, as the United States announced this morning that it conducted an air strike on a training camp near Sabratha, targeting Noureddine Chouchane, a.k.a. “Sabir,” and killing at least 40. The US has linked the militant to the Bardo Museum attack in Tunisia last year, though it is not confirmed whether he was killed.

Since the air strike hit a farmhouse and killed dozens, it is not surprising that the US cannot confirm their target’s death (that is a lot of remains to sort through). But the US’s confusion over who it has killed is a problem. Similarly, The Washington Post recently reported that American officials are now unsure whether or not an airstrike targeting al-Qaida militant Mukhtar Belmokhtar last year was successful. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers, famously targeted accidentally in an airstrike in Libya himself, said it best:

“An aircraft, a pilot, put a guided munition very near to me on a piece of ground where I was standing that was unquestionably out of the Qaddafi forces’ hands, and then proceeded to brief the strike publicly as if it was a valid strike. They said things that were not true. They may have believed them. Either way, it’s a problem, right? It shows that they don’t know what they’re bombing in many instances, and they convince themselves that they do, which is an incredibly dangerous use of lethal power. And it just was extremely useful to see that and consider other things they may be saying to you on one story or another. Because there’s no question to me about what happened.”

The sad truth of the matter is that as the air war against IS expands, the US government does not always know who or what they are bombing. This makes it hard to justify these airstrikes, regardless of how good or bad the targets are. Unfortunately, without good human intelligence, it is difficult to understand the situation on the ground when your closest observer is a drone orbiting at 15,000 feet.

But the IS problem in Libya is not going away. IS controls at least a good 120 miles of territory and growing, 5,000-6,500 fighters, and has been launching a multi-front campaign on oil production centers that is unlikely to be defeated by local actors. None, including the Libyan government, are organized or strong enough.

“The Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure.”

Insurgencies and terrorist groups are most likely to be defeated via direct military action only if they are deftly struck relatively early in their genesis. As we have seen in Iraq and Syria, allowing IS to take significant amounts of territory and establish infrastructure has made them resilient to the 18 month old US-led bombing campaign against them.

With only one airstrike accomplished so far, it is too early to see how the US plans to fight in Libya. However, the Somalia, Yemen, and Syria models show that an air campaign alone is not only ineffective, it is a sloppy, dangerous half-measure. I have not yet seen any studies showing that adding new countries to the extremely costly US bombing list has made Americans safer, yet this continues to be the counterterrorism status quo.