SecA belongs to the large class of ATPases that use the energy of ATP hydrolysis to perform mechanical work resulting in protein translocation across membranes, protein degradation, and unfolding. SecA translocates polypeptides through the SecY membrane channel during protein secretion in bacteria, but how it achieves directed peptide movement is unclear. Here, we use single-molecule FRET to derive a model that couples ATP hydrolysis-dependent conformational changes of SecA with protein translocation. Upon ATP binding, the two-helix finger of SecA moves toward the SecY channel, pushing a segment of the polypeptide into the channel. The finger retracts during ATP hydrolysis, while the clamp domain of SecA tightens around the polypeptide, preserving progress of translocation. The clamp opens after phosphate release and allows passive sliding of the polypeptide chain through the SecA-SecY complex until the next ATP binding event. This power-stroke mechanism may be used by other ATPases that move polypeptides.