Three short open reading frames (ORFs) reside in the 5' leader of Rous sarcoma virus (RSV) and are conserved in all avian sarcoma-leukosis retroviruses. Both extensions of the lengths of the ORFs and alterations in their initiation codons affect viral replication and gene expression. To determine whether the effects on viral replication were due to translational regulation mediated by the ORFs, we examined translation following mutation of the initiation and termination codons of each of the three ORFs. We found that the ORFs marginally enhanced downstream gene expression. Moreover, repression of downstream gene translation was proportional to the lengths of the elongated ORFs and depended on the initiation contexts of the AUG codons. Although the ORFs play a major role in viral activities, their effects on translation were relatively minor. Rather, the ORFs may affect the fate of unspliced avian retroviral RNA in chronically infected cells by participating in the sorting of viral RNA for either translation or encapsidation into virions.