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I have a hard time accurately understanding the meaning of this phrase, beyond a vague grasp of it.

J'ai du mal à faire confiance aux étrangers. Ne serait-ce qu'a cause de ces histoires d'intrus.

Vous allez accepter, de toute façon. Ne serait-ce que pour l'or que vous rapportera cette mission.

Ces gens vendraient leur âme pour avoir ne serait-ce qu'une bribe d'information sur l'incident.

How to interpret the third example has me particularly puzzled. I can't think of a better way to translate "ne serait-ce que" than into "just".

These people would do anything to get their hands on just some scraps of information about the incident.

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Ne serait-ce que is used to introduce a narrowing down of the fact that's been stated. Meaning can slightly vary according to context.

J'ai du mal à faire confiance aux étrangers. Ne serait-ce qu'à cause de ces histoires d'intrus.

Vous allez accepter, de toute façon. Ne serait-ce que pour l'or que vous rapportera cette mission.

In those sentences as ExteFrench says it is used to introduce the main reason not to trust strangers / to accept the job. ("... if only because...").

Ces gens vendraient leur âme pour avoir ne serait-ce qu'une bribe d'information sur l'incident.

Here it expresses a limitation, you could easily replace it with au moins ou au minimum (... "on at least one single piece of news.")

Ces gens vendraient leur âme pour avoir au minimum une bribe d'information sur l'incident.

Note that in a negative context, meaning differs slightly. It is synonym of même pas ("not even").

Il n'a rien voulu entendre, ne serait-ce que des excuses.

Ne serait-ce que is a "conditionnel présent". In very formal register and literature you might find the "subjonctif imparfait" ne fût-ce que. See the answers to this question for more.

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    I'd like to add two things: 1) you can conjugate it to subjonctif imparfait with ne fût-ce que, which is very formal language and can be replace by ne serait-ce (see french.stackexchange.com/questions/2106/… ) ; 2) you can replace ne serait-ce que with rien que: '[...] Rien qu'à cause de ces histoires d'intrus.'. – Destal Jul 4 '16 at 7:29
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In fact "ne serait-ce que" is used when you want to give only one good reason and that it is implicit that there are many reasons.

For you second question, you do not need to place a "à" right before "cette mission". What will the mission bring back ? -> gold.

Hope that it helps.

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A translation may be: "were it only..." which also uses the conditional and inversion.

J'ai du mal à faire confiance aux étrangers. Ne serait-ce qu'à cause de ces histoires d'intrus.

I find it hard to trust strangers. Were it only for this intruder business.

Vous allez accepter, de toute façon. Ne serait-ce que pour l'or que vous rapportera cette mission.

You'll accept anyway. Were it only for the gold that this mission will bring you.

When used as an object, "but" is close in meaning, as in:

Ces gens vendraient leur âme pour avoir ne serait-ce qu'une bribe d'information sur l'incident.

These people would sell their soul to get but a morsel of information on the incident.

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    Yes. Or perhaps more commonly, for the first case: "even if only for just..." – Drew Jul 4 '16 at 16:47
  • Yes that would be more common, but then again "ne serait-ce que" isn't all that common either. The other answers explain the meaning well, I wanted to add a more literal translation. – qoba Jul 5 '16 at 12:58

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