The 3′-untranslated regions of many plant viral RNAs contain cap-independent translation elements (CITEs) that drive translation initiation at the 5′-end of the mRNA. The barley yellow dwarf virus-like CITE (BTE) stimulates translation by binding the eIF4G subunit of translation initiation factor eIF4F with high affinity. To understand this interaction, we characterized the dynamic structural properties of the BTE, mapped the eIF4G-binding sites on the BTE and identified a region of eIF4G that is crucial for BTE binding. BTE folding involves cooperative uptake of magnesium ions and is driven primarily by charge neutralization. Footprinting experiments revealed that functional eIF4G fragments protect the highly conserved stem–loop I and a downstream bulge. The BTE forms a functional structure in the absence of protein, and the loop that base pairs the 5′-untranslated region (5′-UTR) remains solvent-accessible at high eIF4G concentrations. The region in eIF4G between the eIF4E-binding site and the MIF4G region is required for BTE binding and translation. The data support the model in which the eIF4F complex binds directly to the BTE which base pairs simultaneously to the 5′-UTR, allowing eIF4F to recruit the 40S ribosomal subunit to the 5′-end.