Primordial germ cells (PGCs) form during early embryogenesis with a supply of maternal mRNAs that contain shorter poly(A) tails. How translation of maternal mRNAs is regulated during PGC development remains elusive. Here we describe a small-molecule screen with zebrafish embryos that identified primordazine, a compound that selectively ablates PGCs. Primordazine's effect on PGCs arises from translation repression through primordazine-response elements in the 3' UTRs. Systematic dissection of primordazine's mechanism of action revealed that translation of mRNAs during early embryogenesis occurs by two distinct pathways, depending on the length of their poly(A) tails. In addition to poly(A)-tail-dependent translation (PAT), early embryos perform poly(A)-tail-independent noncanonical translation (PAINT) via deadenylated 3' UTRs. Primordazine inhibits PAINT without inhibiting PAT, an effect that was also observed in quiescent, but not proliferating, mammalian cells. These studies reveal that PAINT is an alternative form of translation in the early embryo and is indispensable for PGC maintenance.