Thursday 21 November 2013

Go There With Gimbal!

A gimbal - and the Gimbal logo
Do you have an iPhone or an iPad? And do you commute? If you answer yes to both, you should download Gimbal, a free app which will transform your daily slog of getting to work into a daily journey of discovery. 

Gimbal is not a common word, even for those who speak English as their first language, so if you have an Asian language as your mother tongue, and you've no idea what a gimbal is, don't feel intimidated - it's a thing of rings and pivots used to keep navigational instruments level at sea.

Not many of us go in for literal seafaring, but all of us engage in exploration conducted through the imagination. So there could not be a more fitting name for Gimbal. The app comes from Comma Press, a UK-based publisher specialising in short stories and international fiction in translation. Gimbal allows you to explore cities all over the world through a variety of short stories from Comma's award-winning and internationally-acclaimed authors, many of whom write in languages other than English, although as Gimbal is an English-language app, all stories have been translated. 

Whether you're riding the train in Beijing, taking a bus in Bangkok, or whizzing along the MRT in Singapore, Gimbal is for you: wherever they are, it's designed to offer commuters an opportunity to escape their surroundings through fiction, by exploring distant cities quite unknown to them.  

So where do you fancy going?  Venice? Istanbul? Dubai? Manchester, because you're a Man U fan? 

Wherever and why ever you want to go, the idea is that you choose a story by location, journey length, genre or mode of transport, and then select either the read function - like an eBook - or the download and listen function - an audio book which comes with a map that follows the fictional journey of the character, with markers containing information about, and images of, real landmarks in the target city.   

Gimbal is very easy to use. I selected my first story by journey length, 5-10 minutes, and picked The Other Man, by Jean Sprackland, the story from Blackpool, a seaside town in northern England. I clicked the read function, and found a horrifying story about a man's encounter with a briefcase that doesn't belong to him. It was creepily compelling, though perhaps a little less drenched with a sense of place than I'd expected, given its inclusion on Gimbal.

At the end of each story is an about the story button. By flipping through the following pages you can find information not only about the authors, but also about the translators.

Gimbal grew out of Tramlines, a project run by Literature Across Frontiers, a UK-based organisation which aims to develop inter-cultural dialogue through literature, to promote translation, and to highlight lesser-translated literatures. Tramlines was a residency project, across 8 European and North African cities, all with tram networks – it’s a pity they couldn't have included any Asian cities served by trams, such as Hong Kong. As it was, writers from Alexandria, Barcelona, Brussels, Istanbul, Manchester, Prague, Riga and Zagreb were paired up, and each visited the other's city, with the task of exploring it by tram, in order to write a story that engaged with local communities - and with local commuters. 

The resulting stories are now all to be found on Gimbal, along with many others. Excluding West Asia (the Middle East), Asia is represented only by China, and only by 3 stories: Wheels Are Round, by Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen, the story from Beijing; Square Moon, by Ho Sin Tung, translated by Petula Parris-Huang, the story from Hong Kong; Squatting, by Diao Dou, translated by Brendan O'Kane, the story from Shenyang.  These are all boundary-stretching stories, also to be found in Shi Cheng: short stories from urban China, part of Comma Press' series of anthologies of short stories, Reading The City. 

Although Gimbal has only 3 stories from Asia, I counted 10 from cities in England, and I have to say I think this is a slightly odd imbalance.  But that's a quibble. Despite thinking Manila, Jakarta, and Yangon are as worthy of inclusion as Oxford, Cambridge, and London, I loved Gimbal - we've of course always been able to go anywhere with books, but how fantastic that authors, publishers and translators are challenging us to travel further than we otherwise might, transported by our phones and tablets, in scraps of precious time we might otherwise have found dreary.