So what’s up with this title? “‘Terp” is slang for “interpreter,” someone who converts between spoken languages (like a translator but for spoken instead of written language). And “herp” is vernacular for reptiles and amphibians. “Herp” harks back to Linnaeus’ classification of the animals, in which reptiles and amphibians were both classified as “herpetiles.” According to Wikipedia, aficionados of these animals are called “herpers.” Be very careful of the spelling of that word.

So really what I want to talk about is being a veterinarian and translating. How, you may ask, are these things related? Well, they aren’t, really, but you’ve done me the honor of reading this post this far so I owe you some meaningful insights.

Veterinarians are bona fide doctors – we spend four years in vet school learning the same anatomy, physiology, pathology, and everything else that human doctors learn. We have to focus on lots of different species – with many differences between them – while human doctors have the luxury of specializing in just one. We learn about mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, you name it…and while we don’t necessarily have to treat all these animals routinely, we still need to be able to drop interesting tidbits at cocktail parties like, “Did you know that rabbits have a double uterus and double cervix?” We do clinical rotations in our fourth year but are not required to do internships or residencies (though these options do exist). We can hang a shingle and start practicing the day after we graduate!

How does being a vet help me translate documents? Well, as I mentioned above, I have a lot of the same medical training as human doctors. Thus, I understand a lot of the specialized terminology in human medical documents and can translate these appropriately. Of course I am equipped to translate animal-related medical documents too, like animal studies.

More importantly, as I emphasized during my talk at the ATA conference, about 60% of infectious diseases are zoonotic (meaning transmitted from animals to humans) per the CDC. For example, you have probably heard of bird flu (avian influenza H5N1). It is zoonotic, meaning people can catch it from birds. As the virus continues to mutate, it may eventually pick up the ability to pass directly between humans – and at that point we could have a flu pandemic on our hands. And as we all know, pandemics don’t discriminate by country or language.

I am not trying to be paranoid, just realistic, as I am a BIG proponent of understanding the connections between human and animal health. As a vet with a serious (almost pathological) passion for communication, I am dedicated to representing vets in the public health sphere and stimulating education and discussion among medical translators on the importance of zoonoses because one day we just might need to call upon each other to tackle a serious public health crisis – who better to do that than people who specialize in medicine AND cross-cultural communication?

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