Effective immune surveillance by cytotoxic T cells requires newly synthesized polypeptides for presentation by major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules. These polypeptides are produced not only from conventional AUG-initiated, but also from cryptic non-AUG-initiated, reading frames by distinct translational mechanisms. Biochemical analysis of ribosomal initiation complexes at CUG versus AUG initiation codons revealed that cells use an elongator leucine-bound transfer RNA (Leu-tRNA) to initiate translation at cryptic CUG start codons. CUG/Leu-tRNA initiation was independent of the canonical initiator tRNA (AUG/Met-tRNA(i)(Met)) pathway but required expression of eukaryotic initiation factor 2A. Thus, a tRNA-based translation initiation mechanism allows non-AUG-initiated protein synthesis and supplies peptides for presentation by MHC class I molecules.