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The idea of superlative is easy to convey with 一番, 最も or even 最強, 最高, etc. But I have been wondering for a long time how to express the opposite idea: the least something. I often lack in ways to express this when I’m talking in Japanese.

For instance, how would one translate things like the least risky agreement, the least bad option, the least important clue?

Obviously it is possible to replace least bad with best in most cases but the meaning is not really the same. So translating least bad by 最良and least risky by 一番安全, while it’s basically what I’m doing right now, would not be the kind of answer I expect.

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Unfortunately the Japanese language lacks this feature. Even if you don't like, you have to rephrase it. For example, to say the least risky agreement,

  • もっとも危険性が低い合意
  • いちばんましな合意
  • 可能な中ではもっとも安全な合意 (using 可能な中では to express reluctance)
  • [?]もっとも危険でない合意 (clumsy and ambiguous)
  • [x]もっとも危険でない合意 (this usually means "not the most dangerous", i.e., not necessarily the safest but at least not the worst)

As you can see, using ない can result in ambiguous expressions and should be avoided IMHO.

The same thing can be said for less + (adjective). For example less important clue would be:

  • 重要性がより低い手がかり
  • 比較的重要でない手がかり
  • それほど重要でない手がかり
  • 相対的にはどうでもよい手がかり
  • ○○ほどには重要でない手がかり

FWIW, this page describes this English construction (less/least + (adjective)) for Japanese people who learn English. (Note that some Japanese translations in this page are "literal" in a sense, but ambiguous. 彼は最も重要ではない usually means "He's not the most important" rather than "He's the least important".)

  • It's not unfortunate, it's far more flexible when you're used to it! – virgil9306 Feb 16 '17 at 7:27

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