The laughing dove of Breyten Breytenbach

The laughing dove of Breyten Breytenbach

It was one of the most read articles on our previous website, The Ministry of Poetic Affairs. Since Let’s Agree It’s Art is also about poetry (because it’s art), it is a good moment to share the beautiful poem written by Breyten Breytenbach with you. This is about the laughing dove of Breyten Breytenbach.

Did you know that this poem was elected as the most beautiful South African poem in 2014? In the Central Library in the Dutch city The Hague, this poem was selected as the best African poem. This poem is strong in both Afrikaans and English.

More than a love poem

Well, this poem is more than a love poem. Yes, it tells about love and the way someone feels about another person. In a way it’s also a protest. A protest of those who want to prevent the other from visiting his or her lover.

Breyten Breytenbach
Breyten Breytenbach
Credits: at the end of this article.

Breytenbach was not allowed to return to his country his country in the Sixties, because of his marriage. He married a woman who was of Vietnamese ancestry. During the Sixties when this happened, Apartheid was at it’s peak. Apartheid is a word that describes a system of institutionalised racial segregation. It existed between 1948 and the early Nineties in South Afrika. 

His marriage was considered a criminal offense. It wasn’t allowed to have sexual relations with someone of a different race. This didn’t stop him from returning to South Africa. He did so in 1975 and was arrested. He was convicted for illegally entering the country.  He was convicted and was punished with nine years for high treason. Two years later, he again had to appear before a judge and had to response to charges about planning an attack on the prison at Robben Island. The judge ruled that there was no real evidence for this case and dismissed it. He was however found guilty on charges about the smuggling of letters and poems from the prison where he was held. The fine for this was fifty dollar. He was not released until 1982, after international protests. He went back to France, where he became a French citizen. Until today Breytenbach holds two nationalities.

After Apartheid was abolished in the Nineties, he could go back to his home country. In 2000 he was appointed as a visiting professor at the University of Cape Town.

The work of Breytenbach is greatly inspired by his political beliefs. But, as you can see from the poem Rooiborsduif, he is also known for his other work.

Breytenbach is the brother of Jan Breytenbach, the co-founder of the 1st Reconnaissance Commando of the South African Special Forces, and Cloete Breytenbach, a war correspondent. He is the father of Daphnee Breytenbach, a French journalist.

During Writers Unlimited The Series in The Hague on Friday 26 2014, his poem was selected as best South African poem. Let’s start off with the original version. Something we don’t normally do. But as many of you search for the Afrikaans text, we decided to do things differently.

Breyten Breytenbach - Allerliefste, ek stuur vir jou 'n rooiborsduif

Allerliefste, ek stuur vir jou ‘n rooiborsduif

Allerliefste, ek stuur vir jou ‘n rooiborsduif
want niemand sal ‘n boodskap wat rooi is skiet nie.
Ek gooi my rooiborsduif hoog in die lug en ek
weet al die jagters sal dink dis die son.
Kyk, my duif kom op en my duif gaan onder
en waar hy vlieg daar skitter oseane
en bome word groen
en hy kleur my boodskap so bruin oor jou vel
Want my liefde reis met jou mee,
my liefde moet soos ‘n engel by jou bly,
soos vlerke, wit soos ‘n engel.
Jy moet van my liefde bly weet
soos van vlerke waarmee jy nie kan vlieg nie.

As you can see, the official title of this poem is Allerliefste, ek stuur vir jou ‘n rooiborsduif. This poem tells about the poet who sends a pigeon to fly to the one he loves. The hunters will not shoot, because the pigeon looks like the sun.

My sweet love, I send you a laughing dove

My sweet love, I send you a laughing dove
because no one would shoot a red message
I throw my robin dove high into the sky and I
know that all the hunters will think it’s the sun
See, my dove flies up and down
and he flies, oceans shine
and trees are green
He colours my messages brown on your skin
For my love travels with you
My love has to stay with an angel such as you
like wings, white as an angel.
You should know about my love
with wings you can’t fly with.

Strange right, the rooiborsduif turns into a laughing dove when translated. Still,  this is the right translation for this animal, as you can read on this Wikipedia page.


The photo of Breyten Breytenbach is made by Luigi NoviLuigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons.

The photo of the laughing dove is made by Manojiritty and edited by us to contain the poem by Breyten Breytenbach.
This article appeared on the website The Ministry of Poetic Affairs. This website stopped its activities in August 2018. The information has been changed to fit the format of Let’s Agree It’s Art.