Most retroviruses require translational recoding of a viral messenger RNA stop codon to maintain a precise ratio of structural (Gag) and enzymatic (Pol) proteins during virus assembly1,2. Pol is expressed exclusively as a Gag–Pol fusion either by ribosomal frameshifting or by read-through of thegagstop codon3. Both of these mechanisms occur infrequently and only affect 5–10% of translating ribosomes, allowing the virus to maintain the critical Gag to Gag–Pol ratio4,5,6,7,8. Although it is understood that the frequency of the recoding event is regulated bycisRNA motifs, no mechanistic explanation is currently available for how the critical protein ratio is maintained. Here we present the NMR structure of the murine leukaemia virus recoding signal and show that a protonation-dependent switch occurs to induce the active conformation. The equilibrium is such that at physiological pH the active, read-through permissive conformation is populated at approximately 6%: a level that correlates within vivoprotein quantities. The RNA functions by a highly sensitive, chemo-mechanical coupling tuned to ensure an optimal read-through frequency. Similar observations for a frameshifting signal indicate that this novel equilibrium-based mechanism may have a general role in translational recoding.