Whether protein synthesis and cellular stress response pathways interact to control stem cell function is currently unknown. Here we show that mouse skin stem cells synthesize less protein than their immediate progenitorsin vivo,even when forced to proliferate. Our analyses reveal that activation of stress response pathways drives both a global reduction of protein synthesis and altered translational programmes that together promote stem cell functions and tumorigenesis. Mechanistically, we show that inhibition of post-transcriptional cytosine-5 methylation locks tumour-initiating cells in this distinct translational inhibition programme. Paradoxically, this inhibition renders stem cells hypersensitive to cytotoxic stress, as tumour regeneration after treatment with 5-fluorouracil is blocked. Thus, stem cells must revoke translation inhibition pathways to regenerate a tissue or tumour.